Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Mind and Cosmos / Nagel

"Mind and Cosmos" by Thomas Nagel came in the mail, yesterday, from Amazon.  It's not just used Reader's Digest Music Books I've bought, lately.  (The music books come but I am amazed how few of the songs I know.  We are not talking Bach, Schubert, hymns or hiking songs.  When my children were little I first learned of "Hickory Dickory Dock" and such treasures. Then at Christmas, in playschool, they sang:  "Santa Claus is coming to town."  I was outraged at the terrible theology.  How quaint. But this lies some decades back now.  At present I need to learn the songs from the 20's, 30's and 40's.  Yup.)

So, with the songs books not resonating right of the bat, or not at all, I have already thrown myself onto the "Mind and Cosmos", overnight.  How beautifully Nagel turns the phrases and injects good sense into the discussion.  How refreshing.

Also see this post and link to National Post article on the reaction to Thomas Nagel.

Let's give a little from Chapter 1: Introduction.

"Scientists are well aware of how much they don't know, but this is a different kind of problem--not just of acknowledging the limits of what is actually understood but of trying to recognize what can and cannot in principle be understood by certain existing methods."

"The starting point for the argument is the failure of psychophysical reductionism, a position in the philosophy of mind that is largely motivated by the hope of showing how the physical sciences could in principle provide a theory of everything.  If that hope is unrealizable, the question arises whether any other more or less unified understanding could take in the entire cosmos as we know it...What I would like to do is to explore the possibilities that are compatible with what we know--in particular what we know about how mind and everything connected with it depends on the appearance and development of living organisms, as a result of the universe's physical, chemical, and then biological evolution.  I will contend that these processes must be reconceived in light of what they have produced, if psychophysical reductionism is false.  

The argument from the failure of psychophysical reductionism is a philosophical one, but I believe there are independent empirical reasons to be skeptical about the truth of reductionism in biology.  Physico-chemical reductionism in biology is the orthodox view, and any resistance to it is regarded as not only scienifically but politically incorrect.  But for a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works.  The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes.  (Footnote:  See Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker:  Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design, for a canonical exposition, which seems to convince practically everyone.)  [Snort.  Hahahaha.]  This is just the opinion of a layman who reads widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the nonspecialist.  Perhaps that literature presents the situation with a simplicity and confidence that does not reflect the most sophisticated scientific thought in these areas.  but it seems to me that, as it is usually presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense. 

I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life.  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.  We are expected to abandon this naive response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples.  What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a nonneglibible probability of being true.  There are two questions.  First, given what we known about the chemical basis of biology and genetics, what is the likelihood that self-reproducing life forms should have come into existence spontaneously on the early earth, solely through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry?  The second question is about the sources of variation in the evolutionary process that was set in motion once life began:  In the available geological time since the first life forms appeared on earth, what is the likelihood that, as a result of physical accident, a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist? 

[No wonder people hate him.]

... The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now that it was in Aristotle's day.  That is has produced you, and me, and the rest of us is the most astonishing though about it.  If contemporary research in molecular biology leaves open the possibility of legitimate doubts about a fully mechanistic account of the origin and evolution of life, dependent only on the laws of chemistry and physics, this can combine with the failure of psychophysical reductionism to suggest that principles of a different kind are also at work int he history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic.  I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous,but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science."


He concludes the introduction, a few more pages down the road with this disclaimer: he is not into "intelligent design", but...

"...I confess to an ungrounded assumption of my own, in not finding it possible to regard the design alternative as a real option.  I lack 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.  So my speculations about an alternative to physics as a theory of everything do not invoke a transcendent being but tend toward complications to the immanent character of the natural order.  [What?]  That would also be a more unifying explanation than the design hypothesis.  I disagree with the defenders of intelligent design in their assumption, one which they share with their opponents, that the only naturalistic alternative is a reductionist theory based on physical laws of the type with which we are familiar.  Nevertheless, I believe the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion." 

Say, Richard Dawkins, he means of course.

How delightful, all of this, except for the "complications to the immanent character of the natural order", which don't make any sense, at this point.

So much for now.  I shouldn't copy too much.  It is a new book and people should buy it.  I should also say that it is a short book and, as you see, not that hard to read and quite good, so I think people would find it enjoyable.

Regarding the "immanent character of the natural order", we can see on this picture (all rights reserved) , that Thamas Nagel sits with Juergen Habermas.  I did read a bood by Juergen Habermas from the Concordia library, not too long ago, and remember basically not understanding it.  There are not many books I feel I don't understand.  That one was one of them, the other one was the one about post-modernist thought on religion. Same kind of topic maybe.  It seems to me, or I am afraid, it will only be the most esoteric of us all, who will be able to me make sense out of the "immanent" and its "complications".

In the end I will be chucking Thomas Nagel, since I basically know all that he is saying already, and Readers Digest, also, and just go back to my hymnbook.

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