Thursday, July 4, 2013

Mind and Cosmos / Finished

Let's finish Mind and Cosmos.

Nagel shows that many important things or concepts exist outside of our physical selves, such as reason itself, and values.  Something exists whether I perceive it or not.

"Thought and reasoning are correct or incorrect in virtue of something independent of the thinker's beliefs, and even independent of the community of thinkers to which he belongs.  We take ourselves to have the capacity to form true beliefs about the world around us, about the timeless domains of logic and mathematics, and about the right thing to do.  We don't take these capacities to be infallible, but we think they are often reliable, in an objective sense, and that they can give us knowledge.  The natural internal stance of human life assumes that there is a real world, that many questions, both factual and radical, have correct answers, and that there are norms of thought which, if we follow them, will tend to lead us toward the correct answers to those questions.  It assumes that to follow those norms is to respond correctly to values or reasons that we apprehend.  Mathematics, science, and ethics are built on such norms.

It is difficult to make sense of all this in traditional naturalistic terms.  Unless we are prepared to regard most of it as an illusion, this points to a further expansion of our conception of the natural order to include not only the source of phenomenological consciousness--sensation, perception, and emotion--but also the source of our active capacity to think our way beyond those starting points.  The question is how to understand mind in its full sense as a product of nature--or rather, how to understand nature as a system capable of generating mind. 

...But once we come to recognize the distinction between appearance and reality, and the existence of objective factual or practical truth that goes beyond what perception, appetite, and emotion tell us, the ability of creatures like us to arrive at such truth, or even to think about it, requires explanation.  An important aspect of this explanation will be that we have acquired language and the possibilities of interpersonal communication, justification, and criticism that language makes possible.  But the explanation of our ability to acquire and use language in these ways presents problems of the same order, for language is one of the most important normatively governed faculties.  To acquire a language is in part to acquire a system of concepts that enables us to understand reality. 

I am going to set aside at this point all the problems mentioned earlier about the probability of the origin of life and the sufficiency of random mutation and natural selection to account for the actual evolutionary history of life on earth.  The question I want to raise remains even if those problems can be solved for the evolution of plants and lower animals...  The problem has two aspects.  The first concerns the likelihood that the process of natural selection should have generated creatures with the capacity to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond the initial appearances--as we take ourselves to have done and to continue to do collectively in science, logic, and ethics.  ...  The second problem is the difficulty of understanding naturalistically the faculty of reason that is the essence of these activities.  I will begin by considering a possible response to the first problem, before going on to the second, which is particularly intractable."  (Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, Oxford, pp. 72-74)

These are the main problems he wishes to explore and he does so in the remaining pages.  The last bit, following, is from his conclusion.

"Philosophy has to proceed comparatively.  The best we can do is to develop the rival alternative conceptions in each important domain as fully and carefully as possible, depending on our antecedent sympathies, and see how they measure up.  That is a more credible form of progress than decisive proof or refutation.

In the present climate of a dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on speculative Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against attacks from religion, I have thought it useful to speculate about possible alternatives.  Above all, I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.  It would be an advance if the secular theoretical establishment, and the contemporary enlightened culture which it dominates, could wean itself of the materialism and Darwinism of the gaps--to adapt on of its own pejorative tags.  I have tried to show that this approach is incapable of providing an adequate account, either constitutive or historical, of our universe.  

However, I am certain that my own attempts to explore alternatives is far too unimaginative.  An understanding of the universe as basically prone to generate life and mind will probably require a much more radical departure from the familiar forms of naturalistic explanation that I am at present able to conceive.  Specifically, in attempting to understand consciousness as a biological phenomenon, it is too easy to forget how radical is the difference between the subjective and the objective, and to fall into the error of thinking about the mental in terms taken from our ideas of physical events and processes.  Wittgenstein was sensitive to this error, though his way of avoiding it through an exploration of the grammar of mental language seems to me plainly insufficient.  

It is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations, and not merely beyond our grasp in humanity's present stage of intellectual development.   But I believe that we cannot know this, and that it makes sense to go on seeking a systematic understanding of how we and other living things fit into the world.  In this process, the ability to generate and reject false hypotheses plays an essential role.  I have argued patiently against the prevailing form of naturalism, a reductive materialism that purports to capture life and mind through its new-Darwinian extension.  But to go back to my introductory remarks, I find the view antecedently unbelievable--a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense.  The empirical evidence can be interpreted to accommodate different comprehensive theories, but in this case the cost in conceptual and probabilistic contortions is prohibitive.  I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two--though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid.  The human will to believe is inexhaustible." (Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, pp. 127 and 128.) 

OK, I think that Nagel has made himself perfectly clear.  The man is so clear, I must love him for it.  And what could one add?

I have young persons in my life, strict atheists who study psychology and who insist that all of human life comes town to atoms and molecules.  I have people on the internet, who howl the moment you dare to contradict Richard Dawkins in the slightest.  I am a biology major and had the evolutionary concepts shoved down my throat.  However, none of those concepts stood up to learning about cell biology.  Just one single cell is a miracle above miracles.  If the stars and the universe have not make you shudder with reverence, then the single cell could do it.

Nagel gets all this and goes beyond it.  It is consciousness, language and rationality which are even more astounding, with all naturalistic explanations just as inadequate.  Basically, all of it is stupendously grand and our theories are insufficient or laughable.  Not that he has given up looking and thinking.

To most people all this serves to witness to the glory of the Creator, his mind, his wisdom, his language, his revelation, his love. Nagel did not go anywhere near love, and this is the very greatest thing to contemplate.  Of all the things that make us human we find that the best.  Certainly, there is the biological component, but hardly would we be satisfied with a mere biological explanation or purpose.

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