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No god, but not nothing

Posted by: on Sep 6, 2013 | 9 Comments

September 6, 2013 | Thomas Nagel isn’t crazy, he’s just honest

JASON WALSH

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinist Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False
By Thomas Nagel
Oxford University Press, 2012

Picture the scene: a respected philosopher, perhaps the best-known philosopher of mind working today, publishes a book that in temperate language argues that there may in fact be more to life than blind evolution. The philosopher himself happens to be an atheist and is careful to state that he does not believe any kind of deity is at work. Seems like an interesting argument, right?

Well, an argument is just what Thomas Nagel got when he published just such a book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinist Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, last year. Denounced as a teleologist, a creationist, an astrologer and “distinctly dumb”, Nagel starts his argument from a sense that something has gone badly wrong in the discourse around science.

In fact Nagel is arguing for teleology. Indeed, he straightforwardly argues for what he calls “natural teleology”, favouring a form of panpsychic monism as an explanation for consciousness and this natural teleology, whereby “all the elements of the physical world are also mental”. Though anti-reductionist, he remains a naturalist and also a believer in the human capacity for reason. The most important position in Mind and Cosmos is his take on the mind-body problem—the question of whether consciousness itself is a discrete phenomenon. For Nagel the human mind is a unique thing, not merely an epiphenomena of neural activity in the brain. This is an uncontroversial view for a layman to hold, but a surprisingly controversial one in the academy.

Early on Nagel lays his cards on the table. He is on the side of the ordinary person who intuits from everyday experience, writing that his scepticism is informed not by belief in the supernatural but the fact that “the available scientific evidence, in spite of the the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense.” This is perhaps the nub of why Nagel has been so fiercely criticised. To posit a worldview from the experiential and intuitive sense of ordinary people is nothing short of heresy today.

True, there is much that is counter-intuitive and yet demonstrably true in the natural sciences, but that is precisely the point: it is demonstrably true. Invisible forces such as electricity differ from the invisible force of god because we can demonstrate, indeed harness, the one but not the other. However, the predominant idea today of what it is to be human, indeed how the cosmos works is not demonstrably true. It remains speculative, even if grounded in agreed natural science. Much is made of the checks and balances of falsifilability and peer-review but when it suits, such as with computer modelling, the former goes out the window and the latter, while it has many virtues, is no panacea.

On the matter of teleology, Nagel’s thesis has some potentially disturbing consequences, one of which is the potential for the raising of nature above humanity. We have already seen a curious marriage of science and animism in environmentalism, which seeks to recast our relationship with the natural world in profound ways. I am speaking here, not of the wilder fringes of Gaia worship which is, frankly, risible, but of the increasingly mainstream view that nature is not only chaotically self-organised but has desires internal to itself.

Ironically, the spectre of quasi-deism hangs over both Nagel and those he seeks to criticise, but the real spadework remaining to be done is not in critiquing science, but in the sociology that has built-up around science, both popular and scholarly. Speaking to an atheist activist recently, one with whom I get on rather well, I was dumbfounded by his claim that all of human society, from action to belief, could be explained by evolutionary biology. Quite apart from the staggering reductionism of such a view, it is difficult to tell such views apart from the ultra-Calvinist doctrine of double predestination, except that it’s not god predetermining our lives, but an abstract force called evolution. Let’s make no bones about it, this is not science, it is belief and it mistakes the mechanics of causality for essence. The process of evolution is well-understood, but to attribute human action to evolution is not only to write humanity entirely out of the picture (an arguable position, albeit one I disagree with), but to construct a new faith out of an embarrassingly thin gruel. Worse than mere reductionism, this particular dead-end is a political nightmare that lends itself to technocracy not seen since the days of mania for eugenics.

Personally I find this wryly amusing given that at a recent conference I was sneered at for working for The Christian Science Monitor. Never mind the find that The Monitor is one of the most highly respected newspapers in the United States, at no point did I state that I was a Christian of any kind, let alone a Christian Scientist. Irksome and disappointing as this reaction was, it is faintly amusing because of its hypocrisy: why is it that the self-styled anti-religious make assumptions based on their own mere beliefs, absent facts? Why not investigate prior to rendering judgement? My amusement rather fades, however, when I consider the closing of the humanist mind in recent decades. There was a time when few non-beleivers would bother to declare themselves an atheist unless asked a direct question as to whether they believed in god. Most people defined themselves by making a positive statement about what they did believe in—such as Marxism or liberalism, for example—not by what they didn’t. Not so in today’s post-political world, where intellectual abstractions have become stand-ins for the dead politics of the past.

As a result, fallacious appeals to authority have replaced contestation about the future of human society, the strongest of which is the idea that the materialism of the natural sciences, biological and physical, not only can, but in fact does, explain everything. This scientism has exploded in recent years, with the likes of Richard Dawkins leading the charge, spreading around the world thanks to internet forums where embittered atheists can hunker down and imagine they are a victimised minority group suffering unjust persecution at the hands of a mass of thoughtless believers. The thing is, to think this is, frankly, batty. It is also self-contradicting. If all human thought is reducible to biology—and, one can only assume, this to chemistry and that to physics—then the new non-believers are no more independent thinkers than are creationists, Jehova’s Witnesses or Appalachian snake handlers. These kinds of contradictions are precisely what Nagel has teased out of the evolutionary account of human consciousness. In short, if reason is a function of evolution rather than a result of the conscious pursuit of truth, then how can reason itself be trusted? And if it cannot, then the whole enterprise collapses like a house of cards—along with pretty much everything else humanity has ever thought.

Writing in the American liberal magazine The Nation fellow philosophers Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg lit on Nagel for engaging with science on a purely popular level. Early on in Mind and Cosmos, Nagel writes his “is just the opinion of a layman who reads widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the nonspecialist.” The problem with criticising Nagel for not being a scientist is twofold. Firstly, to dismiss Nagel for being a philosopher rather than a natural scientist is to argue from authority—a fallacy. Leiter and Weisberg may be satisfied playing second fiddle in the biologists’ orchestra, but there is no reason other philosophers should restrict their scope so. Secondly, whatever natural scientists are writing in scholarly journals or presenting at academic conferences, it is precisely in the popular realm, from popular science books to newspaper stories, from to documentary films to Twitter spats, and particularly on blogs and in so-called “memes” on Facebook pages with vulgar names like “I Fucking Love Science”, that the battle is being fought. It is here that we see humanity depicted, variously, as a plague on the planet, as fleshy robots entirely lacking in free will and as a little more than “jumped-up monkeys” with a penchant for mass murder. (For the record, the term jumped-up monkey was popularised by Brad DeLong who works in a field, economics, with little cause to compare itself to the natural sciences—unless, of course, you wish to reduce human economic activity to a series of base biological or neurochemical desires.)

A recent video posted to the internet featuring Richard Dawkins performing an 1980-style acid house rave song prompted an atheist friend of mine to write, mockingly: “Proof of the superiority of religious art.” This flippant comment captures the problem with contemporary scientism surprisingly well: in reducing the world to matter alone it removes not only (in my opinion imaginary) deities, but also much of what it is to be human. Life may well be senseless without music, but it would be equally senseless with only bad music. Why bother investigating our deepest desires when you think these desires are little more than the chemical reactions of RNA or DNA or the banging together of subatomic particles? A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan of the brain has a lot to tell us and, doubtlessly, in time will tell us more, but will it tell us about love? Human beings are not offended by the proposition that love is a mere chemical reaction in the brain simply because we a rank sentimentalists, we are offended because such a view of human relations is psychopathic.

We know that damage to an area of the brain can be correlated to loss or impairment of the senses, for example vision, but that tells us only the location of the part of the brain that deals with the function of sight. It tells us nothing about what it is to see. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that an evolutionary psychologist and an evolutionary biologist visiting an art museum could come up with theories about how painting helped prehistoric humans form communities or perhaps even talk about pigment on canvas, but make nothing of the ‘mere’ aesthetic experience itself. Nor indeed does the neuro-biological turn say anything about the social nature of decisions, the provision of context for behaviour through, for instance, market mechanisms. It would take an extraordinarily groundbreaking work of evolutionary biology to explain the choice to go to the cinema, indeed to make movies to show and even to build cinemas in the first place. To say that moving pictures somehow made us evolve more efficiently would be to dodge the reality of the question of why people watch films.

Leiter and Weisberg’s review is straw-man littered and flat-out fails to deal with the expanding empires of neurobabble, green apocalypse-mongering and the rest of the new scientific para-ideologies that mistake ‘how’ for ‘why’. Interestingly, Leiter and Weisberg attempt to site their criticism of Nagel in support for human social, economic and technological progress. This in and of itself is laudable—and demonstrably true—but it is a misreading of Nagel to suggest he is an antediluvian in seek of the restoration of the pieties of the past. If anything the tone of Mind and Cosmos is that of a book written not in anger, but in sadness.

There’s no shortage of things to be sad about, either. Humanism’s collapse into shrill and shallow atheism is beyond dispiriting. No-one in the West should be labouring under the illusion that not believing in god is a radical idea. Worse still is the fact that in constructing a para-ideology of neo-Darwinism, today’s angry atheist brigade is not only universalising a peculiarly American battle against an empty-headed form of religious revivalism, it is in danger of throwing out the free-willing baby with the supernatural bathwater.

Shallow gloating at the alleged stupidity of religious believers is not in any way useful. The genuine religious threats to secularism and liberalism today come not from Christian fundamentalists, who are already on the back-foot anyway as anyone who cares to investigate would know. The majority of evangelicals under 25 now support same-sex marriage, for instance, and evangelicals are now among the most vociferous of environmentalists, indicating a radical shift in politics. In addition, fundamentalist churches are shrinking, beginning to losing ground to the Catholic and Orthodox churches and those that remain are becoming increasingly secular. In the words of one evangelical pastor: “Expect evangelicalism [in the future] to look more like the pragmatic, therapeutic, church-growth oriented mega-churches that have defined success. Emphasis will shift from doctrine to relevance, motivation, and personal success—resulting in churches further compromised and weakened in their ability to pass on the faith.” That sounds more like Oprah than John Knox. In this regard at least we can say that evangelical Christianity is certainly moving with the times.

No, more serious today is the moral relativism that says there is no absolute truth, that all cultures are equally ‘valid’ (whatever validity could have to do with culture) and that judgement must be suspended or at least conditional. This twisted logic is what leads sophisticated Westerners without a good word to say about their own societies to enjoy their benefits while denying them to those living in socially and economically underdeveloped parts of the world. Absent any absolute morality and believing that human beings are merely collections of atoms how could we possibly that say that female genital mutilation is wrong or that extra-marital sex should not be punished by stoning to death? Taken to its logical conclusion, can we even say there is such a thing as crime if everything is mere unwilling evolutionary processes?

Mockery of religious texts may well be a rational response to the content of those texts, but doing tells us nothing about the world and our place in it. Likewise, loudly declaring oneself to be a ‘sceptic’—or ‘skeptic’ as it is usually rendered even outside the US, a handy hint as to the provenance of the intellectual ideas—does not make it so. Those purporting to speak in the name of science are apt to dismiss theories that don’t meet their standards as unscientific—but not all theories. Memes, for example, are an entirely unscientific piece of flibberty-gibbert and yet they are treated as fact by today’s tedious “science fans” when, in fact, there is no more evidence for their existence than there is for god. Their popularity can be explained by their function: removing human will from the picture. This is extraordinary in its scope: if all human action can be explained by evolution, then who needs politics? Suddenly liberalism, conservatism, Marxism, trade unionism and every other attempt, whether failed or successful, to better Man’s Estate is little more than a glint in the biologist’s eye. Welcome to the dictatorship of science, driven by an ideology that is at heart little more than historical materialism for misanthropes: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, these things didn’t happen because of economic growth or contending political classes, or even because of great individuals, no they just evolved.

It is certainly true that in taking on the field of cosmology, Nagel has invaded the territory of others, but to see one of the greatest philosophers of mind dismissed as akin to an “astrologer”, as Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago did when speaking to The Chronicle of Higher Education is astonishing. Nagel may well be wrong, but he is not an idiot.

His occasional, though grudging, words of regard for intelligent design have, unsurprisingly, gone down like a lead balloon. This is worth considering for a moment. It is an unfortunate success of American evangelical fundamentalism that it has so thoroughly confused creationism and intelligent design. Intelligent design, in its proper form as expressed in the teleological argument, is in no way incompatible with evolution. Ultimately all it need posit is an initial design. For Nagel, as we have seen, this teleology is natural, not supernatural. In fact, a combination of intelligent design and evolution is probably what most Western Christians today believe, certainly Catholics and mainline (non-evangelical) Protestants who have no use for biblical literalism. One need not see any sense in teleology—I for one don’t—to be able to distinguish between it and the idea that the Book of Genesis is the literal historical truth. Meanwhile, that creationists have felt the need to attach bogus scientific language to their cause tells us a lot about where real authority lies today.

Reading the disputes surrounding Mind and Cosmos, I am reminded of the work of another writer, semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco. Jorge of Burgos, the blind librarian antagonist in Eco’s 1980 novel The Name of the Rose angrily laments: “The book of Genesis says what has to be known about the composition of the cosmos, but it sufficed to rediscover the Physics of the Philosopher [Aristotle] to have the universe conceived in terms of dull and slimy matter.” Eco’s Jorge is a biblical literalist infuriated by the philosophical and scientific musings of the novel’s protagonist William of Baskerville. And yet, despite his disdain for reductionism, in this debate it is not Nagel who is the zealot.

Nagel is not entirely alone. Other luminaries have also been chipping away at the consensus that we are meaningless entities.

Raymond Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity is, frankly, on safer ground. For a start, Tallis can more easily fend-off ‘get-off-my-lawn’ dismissals: not only is he a philosopher like Nagel, he is also a physician—a neurologist in fact. Secondly, Tallis’s scope is narrower and more specific, focussing primarily on materialist assaults on free will.

Absent any belief in the uniqueness of human consciousness, perhaps even doubting its existence, today’s neo-Darwinist atheists have no conception of universal law, though many are slow to admit it. Most will agree on the existence of, for instance, human rights, but push as to what is their source and you will likely be greeted with one of two things: a demure to evolutionary biology or pure moral relativism. This is neither sufficient nor satisfying. How, then, is it that we know that murder is wrong, that violence toward children is wrong, that rights bearing subjects should control their own destinies? Is it merely because agreeing these things is socially contingent and in we evolve in line with this? This sounds suspiciously like sociobiology.

Even Leiter and Weisberg can’t quite bring themselves to believe this, having authored a paper called “Why Evolutionary Biology is (so far) Irrelevant to Law”. In it they do an impressive, and necessary, job of taking to task Randy Thornhill’s book A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, but if Leiter and Weisberg don’t accept Thornhill’s thesis of biological determinism as the deus ex machina operating in cases of sexual violence, why accept it for anything? The sociobioloigcal idea that rapists are driven by evolutionary processes, and therefore must presumably not be held responsible for their actions, would be shot down by most people simply because it is offensive to human intuition, but in criticising Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos they state that offensiveness to intuition is irrelevant.

Of course, the “so far” is the ultimate get-out clause, and one that is popular in such circles. But claiming that though we might not know something now, we will in the future is worse than teleology, it is prophecy. The forward march of scientific understanding is one of humanity’s greatest achievements, but nothing is guaranteed. We just tend to forget about those avenues that turn out to produce weaker results than we expected, for instance artificial intelligence and chaos theory. To believe otherwise is to be ignorant of history.

Evolutionary psychology, meanwhile, appears to be the platypus of scholarly disciplines: untroubled by assertion and yet its proponents feel the need to dress up conjecture as science. Indeed its constant use of weasel words such as “is likely to” and “indicates that” alongside apparently concrete scientific conclusions is revealing. Despite these problems, there is a growing body of scientific and philosophical literature that proudly proclaims free will is demonstrably an illusion. Why proponents of this view feel the need to be so evangelical remains unknown both to science and philosophy. After all, surely those who disagree will simply be out-evolved, presumably by causing themselves injury and death in the pursuit of illusory free will while those more suitably equipped will survive to spread their superior genes.

So much for the critics, then. On the other hand, Nagel offers little in the way of evidence for his own position. One one level this is understandable: Nagel is making a philosophical argument, not a scientific one. When he suggests that nature has “a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them” there are two points to consider. Firstly, that value in innate to life and, secondly, that this apparent cosmic predisposition is immanent in nature. The former is appealing, if undemonstrated, while the latter is either a vast understatement or else simply untrue. Happily, Nagel acknowledges the speculative nature of his thinking

If, as Nagel posits, nature has an objective, if it actually wants something, it is not clear why any of us should pay the slightest attention to these wants. Why should we bend to what nature wants when human history is the history over overcoming the limits of nature? What human beings want is a more interesting, and frankly more pressing, matter. Even if nature has designs there is no reason for humans to necessarily cede to those designs and arguments that we should, lest the planet decides to wipe us out, amount to little more than apocalyptic millenarianism—and green eschatology is not only no more convincing than the Christian variety, it also lacks art.

What is perhaps most interesting is that it is this that has set Nagel’s critics’ teeth on edge. Despite attempts to paint him as a secret theist, Nagel is adamantly not a believer. As such his challenge to the neurobabblers, evolutionary psychologists, evolutionary biologists and the rest of the reductionist mainstream is, my concerns about the potential for nature-ism aside, primarily a humanist challenge. It is this that annoys his critics most. A similar book by a theologian would have been ignored. Nagel cannot be.

Nagel has fired a shot across the bows of the latter-day Calvinists of evolutionary biology. Mind and Cosmos is worth reading for that alone and goes some way to underscoring the point that the most significant division in intellectual life today is not between those who do and those who don’t believe in god, but between those who do and don’t believe in humanity. Rather than dismissing him as a crank, Nagel’s critics would do well to consider what is lacking in contemporary scientific explanations of reality and what they can do to bridge this gap.

  • Dylan

    Great post! reminds me of a Camille Paglia line I always liked: “God is man’s greatest idea”

    • Jason Walsh

      Pagila has recently re-entered my life in a big way. Her books, I mean, not her. Can’t get her to respond to an interview request.

      • Dylan

        Sexual Personae was a huge book for me, but I haven’t read her other older books, might be worth a trip to the library. Good luck with getting through. I’d love to read an interview. Try bringing up Madonna!

    • Jason Walsh

      By the way, yours is the first comment—and it’s actually interesting. And to think I was trying to find a way of switching comments off!

  • Justin Smyth

    One might also add that life would be senseless without bad music. This piece resonated strongly with me because it articulates how biological determinism reposes every bit as much on faith for its persuasiveness as a theistic worldview does. It stuns me that its advocates need to have that pointed out. But just as I don’t mistake the biological fact of seeing for the reason or the meaning of seeing, so I don’t believe biological determinism itself exists or could exist outside of the parlous state of neglect that humanism and Enlightenment values find themselves in today. From the post, this puts it particularly well:
    “This is extraordinary in its scope: if all human action can be explained
    by evolution, then who needs politics? Suddenly liberalism,
    conservatism, Marxism, trade unionism and every other attempt, whether
    failed or successful, to better Man’s Estate is little more than a glint
    in the biologist’s eye.”

  • David_McClurkin

    This is a fine trip through the landscape of ideas, prompted by the book. The background and reporter’s ability to correlate ideas of others and to show their relevance is a great strength in this fine review. The book is worthy. The author is not crazy. You have a “money quote” paragraph that I like a great deal:

    “His occasional, though grudging, words of regard for intelligent design
    have, unsurprisingly, gone down like a lead balloon. This is worth
    considering for a moment. It is an unfortunate success of American
    evangelical fundamentalism that it has so thoroughly confused
    creationism and intelligent design. Intelligent design, in its proper
    form as expressed in the teleological argument, is in no way
    incompatible with evolution. Ultimately all it need posit is an initial
    design. For Nagel, as we have seen, this teleology is natural, not
    supernatural. In fact, a combination of intelligent design and evolution
    is probably what most Western Christians today believe, certainly
    Catholics and mainline (non-evangelical) Protestants who have no use for
    biblical literalism. One need not see any sense in teleology—I for one
    don’t—to be able to distinguish between it and the idea that the Book of
    Genesis is the literal historical truth. Meanwhile, that creationists
    have felt the need to attach bogus scientific language to their cause
    tells us a lot about where real authority lies today.”

    The portrayal of American
    evangelical fundamentalism as you do is spot on.

  • Stephen

    A huge problem in a lot of academic debate is the desire to get a swift, clinical destruction of the other’s position, based in some perceived flaw. The strategy is that if there’s that flaw, the whole is flawed, hence dispensible. Despite its shallowness, this is very widespread. The strategy itself is predicated on an all or nothing, binary, yes/no view of whether x is worth considering. What’s lost in bowing to the strategy is the notion that debate ought to discuss points of view, not just buy into or repudiate what’s been said. Another worrying facet of this is the personality politics at play: “Oh, so this is Nagel now, is it. Well I’ll not read him anymore!” we can imagine Dawkinites intoning, knowingly. Anyway, your piece here exhibits the alternative. A critical discussion of what’s actually being said by whom, what it might mean given its context, and how and why some may accept or reject. It seems this is the dying art, but the one that is the more deserving. I guess this is part of what you term ‘believing in humanity’, really.

    As an aside, I wonder how much of a nod Nagel makes to McDowell’s ‘Mind and World’, given the title. Interesting, perhaps, to juxtapose the world and the cosmos, as well as the tones of ewach work.

    • Jason Walsh

      Nice of you to say so. I went heavy on defence of Nagel because of how vicious the denouncing of him as “crazy” was. Despite this, I don’t agree with several fundamental arguments in the book.

      • Stephen

        The ability to tell the difference between disagreement and repudiation of a person is increasingly rare in academia. I spend a lot of my time as a reviewer for journal articles baffled by needless vitriol from my co-reviewers about what are perfectly reasonable expressions of points of view. Because I’m a grumpy weirdo I rarely agree with what’s been expressed, but it’s not my job to stymie discussions before publication. Other academics feel that is their job, it seems.