Mind & Cosmos (2012, Oxford University Press) is the last piece of work by Thomas Nagel, a leading philosopher of mind and Professor of Philosophy at New York University. The book’s subtitle, Why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false, sounds challenging and that in part explains why it is receiving so much attention even by non-specialized journals (e.g. Boston Review and Times Higher Education, to mention only the most significant among them).
The aim of the book is clearly put from the beginning:
“..to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms, but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history. The physical sciences and evolutionary biology cannot be kept insulated from it, and I believe a true appreciation of the difficulty of the problem must eventually change our conception of the place of the physical sciences in describing the natural order.” (3)
This short passage clearly sets out a twofold strategy. It urges us to acknowledge the metaphysical importance of the mind-body problem, and it emphasizes the effects that that problem might bear on our conception of physical and biological sciences. As Nagel points out, the failure of psycho-physical reductionism, a theory according to which mental states could be completely explained in terms of physical states, might affect the way scientists conceive nature.
This is a hot issue. During the last few decades, it has received great attention among scholars from different philosophical and scientific communities. Many prominent and worldwide renowned philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, to cite one of the most famous theorists (see e.g. Consciousness Explained, 1991), had undertaken the philosophical program of reduction following the route traced by Charles Darwin in Eighteenth century (The Origin of Species, 1859) and prosecuted by Richard Dawkins in more recent times (se e.g. The Blind Watchmaker, 1986). The so called Neo-Darwinians, state that everything could be explained by simply relying on laws dictated by physics, chemistry and biology. According to this view, even such things as conscience and values, which human beings had never regarded as part of nature, should be accounted for in light of patterns of evolution and eventually chance.
Nagel starts by assuming that the fact that neo-Darwinian project is strongly believed among scientists doesn’t make it true. “That world view is ripe for displacement” (12) and “cannot be regarded as unassailable” (11), he candidly asserts relying on two different arguments we will comment on in later posts. First, there are reasons to doubt the alleged success of reductionism in philosophy of mind, and secondly, there are independent empirical doubts on what the best account of origin of life and source of evolutionary variations might be. As Nagel puts it, “It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection.” (6).
Finally, I would like to mention two related points of the Introduction, each of which strikes me as signs of profound intellectual honesty. The first is the refusal to taking into account the so called theory of Design which is the most hardened competitor of neo-Darwinians. Nagel explicitly confesses the lack of “the sensus divinitatis that enables – indeed compels – so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose as naturally as they see in a smiling face the expression of human feeling.” (12). He then recognizes his own limits by declaring his partial ignorance of the matter:
“This is just the opinion of a layman who reads widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to nonspecialist. Perhaps that literature presents the situation with a simplicity and confidence that does not reflect the most sophisticated scientific thought in these areas.” (5).
The book deserves great attention and I shall undertake a chapter-by-chapter comment in later posts.