Friday, April 5, 2013

Mind & Cosmos II

The second chapter of Mind & Cosmos, titled Antireductionism and the Natural Order, deals with a number of significant problems which I can not develop here in detail. What I shall do, after briefly reporting the overall strategy of the chapter, is to discuss one line of argument which appears to be crucial and it is particularly emphasized by Nagel: the argument fromintelligibility. I shall suggest that the problem of intelligibility, or of understanding of ourselves, poses a decisive puzzle that neither reductive materialism nor Nagel' teleologism could successfully face.

Nagel starts by reminding us what the point of his strategy is:

If reductionism fails in some respect, this reveals a limit to the reach of the physical sciences, which must therefore be supplemented by something else to account for the missing elements. But the situation may be more serious than that. If one doubts the reducibility of the mental to the physical, and likewise of all those other things that go with the mental, such as value and meaning, then there is some reason to doubt that reductive materialism can give an adequate account even of the physical world. I want to explore the case for this breakdown, and to consider whether anything positive by way of a world view is imaginable in the wake of it. (14)

In the following chapters, Nagel will stress anti-reductionist arguments in different areas, such as Consciousness (chap. 3), Cognition (chap. 4), and Value (chap. 5). In the present chapter, he anticipates that those arguments might come out weak as far as a positive and serious alternative to reductionism is missing. After discarding theism, which is not an option according to him, Nagel ended giving a sketch of what a viable substitute of materialism might be:

... my thought is that they [mentalistic and rational elements] could belong to the natural world and need not imply a transcendent individual mind, let alone a perfect being. The inescapable fact that has to be accommodated in any complete conception of the universe is that the appearance of living organisms has eventually given rise to consciousness, perception, desire, action, and the formation of both beliefs and intentions on the basis of reasons. If all this has a natural explanation, the possibilities were inherent in the universe long before there was life, and inherent in early life long before the appearance of animals. A satisfying explanation would show that the realization of these possibilities was not vanishingly improbable but significant likelihood given the laws of nature and the composition of the universe. It would reveal mind and reason as basic aspects of a nonmaterialistic natural order. (32)

We might callteleologismsuch a cosmological picture in which mind, meaning, values and understanding seem all incorporated into the substance of the world. I agree that mind and teleology should be taken seriously, but considering them as part of natural order doesn't solve the problem.


Sciences require intelligibility as a basic assumption of their explanatory success. Even before the scientific modern revolution, scientists and philosophers believed in a order of things, in a cosmos, which is in principle knowable. Intelligibility, or the possibility of understanding, is hence incorporated in the scientific representation of the universe. How should the world's intelligibility be explained? According to Nagel, the question could be restated as the problem ofsubsumability. Intelligibility might not be entirely subsumed under objective laws of mathematics and physics because including it in an expanded materialistic picture fails to account for our own point of view, the same subjective perspective from which the world's order has primarily appeared. Hence, we need an expanded view of the universe, or a wide form of understanding, capable of embracing both objective descriptions and intelligibility. Nagel holds that intelligibilityis itself part of the deepest explanation of why things are as they are.(17) and then he stressed thatIf we want to try to understand the world as a whole, we must start with an adequate range of data, and those data must include the evident facts about ourselves(20), i.e. including the fact of understanding and meaning.

In short, Nagel insists on the circularity of materialistic strategy and on its supposed failure to explainhow beings like us fit into the world(26), how human beings equipped with consciousness, values and intentionality fit into the world of physics and chemistry (another point made by Nagel is that evolutionary explanation of our cognitive abilities ends up undermining itself by weakening our confidence in the capacity to understand the world, that is the very same capacity which enables evolutionary explication. I will take up this line of criticism in later posts).

Even if Nagel's point is not elaborated in detail, it poses a serious burden of proof on reductive materialism. However, it seems to me too weak an attempt to preserve teleology (i.e. values, mind, consciousness) from objectification. I can not see how mental states, and other normative entities, could fit into a world of atoms, molecules and physical laws without losing their proper function in constructing understanding and meaning. If we accept the objective stance of physical sciences, teleology appears nothing more than an epiphenomenal quality or a rather bizarre human fiction. How could a more detached point of view be capable of including both objectivity and subjectivity? If we decide for a still more objective perspective, we are going to lose human point of view; on the other hand, if we retreat into a subjective solution we have to get rid of science's objectivity. Both alternatives look unpalatable.

If we regards teleology as a structure belonging to mind and to human beings capable of a subjective gaze on reality, instead of a furniture of the world, and if consciousness, intentionality and meaning are fundamental in the construction of an intelligible view of the universe, even of physical one, we should consider the possibility that both of them, teleology and intelligibility, are part of an antecedent point of view which originates both thesense makingcharacter of subjective human understanding and the universal viewpoint of science. This antecedent horizon is not to be found in an enlarged view, more inclusive than, or more detached from, that of physics, but in a transcendental standpoint from which both spring objectivity of science and relativity of human understanding (on this line of thought see Kant's transcendental idealism and Husserl's transcendental phenomenology). This kind of transcendental solution is neglected by Nagel because I believe he equates it with theism. But a full-fledged transcendentalism does not amount to mind transcendence, idealism or other fanciful metaphysics . Transcendentalism would deserve a more serious treatment.

On one point Nagel is flatly right: human beings can deal with uncertainty, which is originated by the undefined progress of understanding, but they cannot survived the thinking that theircommon senseworld comes out as an illusion.

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