20 August 2013
It is immensely satisfying to see Thomas Nagel writing in the New York Times today simply to restate the arguments of his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. (There’s something roguishly clumsy about that sub-title.) It is satisfying because the book was widely (and predictably) trashed by materialist neo-Darwinians, some even suggesting that Nagel, a great philosopher, had cracked or gone completely insane. And yet here he is, not bloody, not bowed, simply laying it all out again.
His broad point is that current science depends, as it did in the seventeenth century, on ‘subtracting from the physical world as an object of study everything mental – consciousness, meaning, intention or purpose.’ This, for me, is not a remotely contentious statement, though I discovered that, for others, it is when, in 1992, I published Understanding the Present which says the same thing. Nagel goes on to say that, as a result, current science is not equipped to account for consciousness. In this, he is supported by the odd way in which neuroscience is now reported. Sometimes we are told brain scans reveal the ‘causes’ of our thought, sometimes we are told the hot spots in the brain ‘are’ our thoughts. The first is concealed dualism – the greatest heresy in the current scientific orthodoxy – the second is meaningless. Few seem to notice this.
So we need a new type of science to study mental phenomena. In a paragraph worth quoting in full, Nagel outlines the ways in which people object to this idea.
‘The first way is to deny that the mental is an irreducible aspect of reality, either (a) by holding that the mental can be identified with some aspect of the physical, such as patterns of behavior or patterns of neural activity, or (b) by denying that the mental is part of reality at all, being some kind of illusion (but then, illusion to whom?). The second way is to deny that the mental requires a scientific explanation through some new conception of the natural order, because either (c) we can regard it as a mere fluke or accident, an unexplained extra property of certain physical organisms – or else (d) we can believe that it has an explanation, but one that belongs not to science but to theology, in other words that mind has been added to the physical world in the course of evolution by divine intervention.’
This is so clear it makes me laugh. As Nagel points out, a) and b) are self-evidently false, c) is implausible and d) requires religious faith. In the circumstances his conclusion – that we need a new way of thinking about consciousness – is more or less forced upon the open-minded reader. And yet this, apparently, is heresy.
Reading the book I was reminded of something Pevsner said about walking up the nave of Ely Cathedral and then coming upon the great lantern over the crossing. The chest, he said, expands. Sadly we live, as C.S.Lewis predicted, among men without chests. But not Nagel, he has a very fine chest indeed.