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Mind and Cosmos
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I'll attempt to blog more regularly starting with a review of a terrific philosophy book due out in October from Oxford University Press. Thanks to NetGalley for the pre-publication pdf.

Mind and Cosmos

Why the Materialist Neo-darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

by Thomas Nagel

From the Publisher: The modern materialist approach to life has utterly failed to explain such central features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, or value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.

How many readers will the subtitle cost this book? It makes it almost mandatory to note immediately that Mind and Cosmos does not champion creationism. In fact, philospher Thomas Nagel, a professor at New York University, confesses to being an atheist and strongly averse to seeing in the world an expression of divine purpose.

One need not be religious to find the triumphal crowing of today's Darwinian materialists tiring and, in light of history, more than a bit ludicrous. No doubt the first hominid to strike a spark from a flint was certain he knew everything there was to know and in every succeeding age, short-sighted men have bragged that finally, this time, they have got it all right.

Today, few scientists would claim that there are not new discoveries to be made, that our understanding of the universe will not be refined further, by science. Professor Nagel, however, argues that the idea that science can eventually supply a complete explanation for the universe based on physical laws is, itself, wrong. As mistaken as belief in the aether.

"In the present climate of a dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on speculative Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against attacks from religion, I have thought it useful to speculate about possible alternatives. Above all, I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world."
Speculation about alternatives to overblown Darwinism is probably not only useful but necessary. Science at present tends to dismiss the most important aspects of our humanity, such things as consciousness, cognition and values.

Mind and Cosmos arrives at a perfect time for me. Like Professor Nagel I lack the capacity to believe in a supreme being. Nevertheless I have become convinced that there is more to the universe than matter. I just finished reading the Bible. Although I cannot accept all the specifics, it strikes me that religion nevertheless is grappling with a part of the truth about existence that today's science ignores. It is therefore valuable and worthy of respect, however wrongheaded some of its tenets may seem. Science has, and will continue to be, wrong again and again as it refines its view of the physical part of the universe and we do not mock science for its shortcomings.

Although I am not religious I have read quite a bit about religion while researching the Byzantine mystery books. The Roman Empire of that time was, of course, officially Christian. Emperor Justinian himself wrote theological treatises intended to bridge gaps between warring church factions. In the beginning I saw only political machinations and the powerful manipulating the gullible. I could not take the religious beliefs of those historical actors seriously. But I have decided I was mistaken.

I was seeing those distant times through twentieth-century eyes. The Romans of Justinian's age lived long before the seventeenth century scientific revolution and the pervasive worship of materialistic science. They lived in a world where there was still room for a God, for demons and angels, saints and sacred relics. It was not that sixth century thinkers were less intelligent than we are. They simply had a different mind set. And though they grasped less of the scientific truth than we do, perhaps they had more insight, flawed as it may have been, into aspects of existence with which we have lost touch.

There is no point in my trying to detail what Professor Nagel has to say. My knowledge of philosophy is mostly from a few undergraduate courses forty years ago so I would probably get it wrong. At any rate, this is not a book which purports to offer answers, rather it is devoted to convincing readers that there are questions that are not being asked, a gargantuan task in itself.

For example it is usually assumed that consciousness appears at some point as an organism grows more complex. (There have been plenty of stories about computers which suddenly gain consciousness.) But does this make sense? If consciousness is not strictly physical then by what means could it emerge from matter? And why?

"Why" is another question posed by Mind and Cosmos. Professor Nagel is looking for a theory that not only describes but explains.

"The claim I want to defend is that, since the conscious character of these organisms is one of their most important features, the explanation of the coming into existence of such creatures must include an explanation of the appearance of consciousness. "
According to the arguments presented (none of which involve religion, I should note for the sceptics) those who simply assume that evolution accounts for consciousness are wrong. There is something fundamental missing from our current materialistic concept of the universe. It is not just that science has not yet found an explanation for everything. Given its current assumptions, it will never be able to find an explanation, at least not of the sort Professor Nagel desires.
"This, then, is what a theory of everything has to explain: not only the emergence from a lifeless universe of reproducing organisms and their development by evolution to greater and greater functional complexity; not only the consciousness of some of those organisms and its central role in their lives; but also the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value."
To say that consciousness is an accidental and inexplicable by-product of chemical processes is not an explanation. Yet isn't that the best that evolutionary science can do at present?

Professor Nagel does not offer answers but he speculates of what the answers might look like. Do even the smallest constituents of the universe contain non-physical elements? Might there be, along with the laws of physics we know, a cosmic (albeit not deistic) predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them?

There is something stultifying about a science that reduces all of existence to physics. Not only that, it flies in the face of what most of us feel as human beings. Is our ability to believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy as children really a design flaw, or a feature?

This is the sort of book one rarely encounters, filled with strikingly original thoughts about truly big ideas. Yet in the end Mind and Cosmos might be most valuable not for its specific arguments but for leading the reader through an exercise in recognizing the flaws in our habits of thinking that few of us ever question.

Mind and Cosmos

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