The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.
Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. Nagel's skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative.
In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic. In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility.
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Thomas Nagel believes Darwin’s theory of natural selection is wrong. Nagel suggests natural selection fails to encompass the concept of mind. Even though Nagel acknowledges biology and physics have made great strides in understanding the nature of life, he suggests the mind should be a starting point for a theory of everything. Nagel infers that science research is bogged down by a mechanistic and materialistic view of nature. Nagel suggests science must discover the origin of consciousness to find the Holy Grail; i.e. an all-encompassing theory of nature.
Without agreeing or disagreeing with Nagel’s idea, it seems propitious for the United States to fund and begin their decade-long effort to examine the human brain. Though nearer term objectives are to understand Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, the longer term result may be to discover the origin of consciousness. Contrary to Nagel’s contention that natural selection cannot explain consciousness, brain research may reveal consciousness rises from the same source of mysterious elemental and repetitive combinations of an immortal gene that Darwin dimly understood. Brain research offers an avenue for extension or refutation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
"Mind and Cosmos" is a tribute to Nagel’s “outside the box” philosophical’ thought. Like some who say string theory is a blind alley for a theory of everything, natural selection may be a mistaken road to the origin of life.
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It is satisfying to see a serious Philosopher of Mind acknowledge the notion that science has hitherto failed to solve the central problem conceptually confronting cogitant Mankind: namely, how inert matter gives rise to consciousness. Nagel correctly contends that consciousness is the most complex, most astounding accompaniment of life extant in our corner of the Cosmos. He understandably argues that the nature of scientific investigation necessarily impairs its ability to offer an adequate explanation of the emergence of awareness from insensate matter and, further, that the invocation of Evolution does not diminish this deficiency. Impressively, irrespective of his acknowledged atheism, he encourages intellectuals to take certain arguments advanced by advocates of Intelligent Design seriously (however sentimental and self-serving such simple-minded statements seem). In essence, what Darwinian theorists unduly dismiss is the difficulty, indeed apparent impossibility, of naive Natural Selection sufficiently accounting for the creation of consciousness prior to the origination of organized life. While Natural Selection can clearly explain the efflorescence of intelligence (owing to its inherent adaptability) after the emergence of self-replicating structures, it cannot conceivably account for the factors that would have made this property productive prior to the appearance of Life.
If the Author is inclined to agree with Dr. Nagel’s aforementioned analysis, wherein does the distinguished Philosopher err? To elucidate the intellectual indictment of his heuristic enterprise we must mention the main metaphysical muddle—the Mind/Matter Mystery. Simply stated, matter is marked by properties such as ponderosity (weightiness), extensibility (space occupation), and ostensible insentience (absence of awareness). Obversely, the mind is immaterial—it occupies no space and possesses no mass. Further, it feels. To employ Nagel’s apt ideational imagery, there is “something it is like to be” aware, sentient, conscious. Despite their undeniable dissimilarity, the immaterial mind is dependent upon the physical brain. Though the best thinkers in the Western tradition have systematically studied this thorny issue since Descartes, it is arguable that the Ancients of the East and elsewhere also appreciated the problem and sought to effect a synthesis of soul and soma, spirit and substance. And yet, even in our advanced age of scientific sophistication, we seem no closer to an edifying understanding of this most fundamental philosophical problem. Persons privy to the pronouncements of “Mind, Matter, Mathematics, & Mortality (M4)” may not be so pessimistic in their assessment of our understanding however.
M4 maintains that modern science has established the infinitesimal (hence immaterial) essence of matter on its minutest level (i.e. that of leptons and quarks). This eradicates the alleged incommensurability of matter and mind in the materialistic sense—for fundamentally, there is no such thing as “matter”. M4 maintains that modern science has established that elementary particles exhibit irreducible awareness (as indicated, for instance, in the modified Double Slit Experiment). This eradicates the alleged incommensurability of matter and mind in the subjectivist sense. Admittedly, I am biased, possessed of pride and prejudice alike. What else could I be? M4 is my “Baby”, my Magnum Opus, and is arguably the most elegant exposition of Metaphysics since Plotinus’ “Enneads”, perhaps Plato’s “Timaeus”, mayhaps even the monumental “Memphite Theology” of the ancient Egyptians secured Shabaka, that Sudanic Sovereign of Nubian nativity. [Aristotle’s Metaphysics is anything but elegant, but this is purely the opinion of a professed Platonist.] It would be easy for an objector to eschew my self-appraisal as excessive intellectual egotism. However, a real refutation of my work would require a repudiation (or reinterpretation) of the sound science and substantive empirical evidence upon which it is based, not an unreasoned, reflexive rejection of my grandiloquent claims. Regrettably, my relative academic obscurity makes the task of kindred colleagues somewhat difficult, especially given my disciplinary dalliance in diverse areas of investigation. However, my manifest (and ambivalently desired) obscurity has not prevented prominent scientists and intellectuals from appropriating my ideas without proper attribution or acknowledgement. It is incumbent upon intellectuals (especially if they endeavor to ensconce their musings in a manuscript) to know what is known and already articulated, if indeed intellectual novelty is among their ideals—as it ought to be. In short, Dr. Nagel should know the nature of my work and adjust his arguments accordingly, even if he ultimately opposes them. Like Dr. Colin McGinn, with whom he shares a modicum of Mysterianism, he would be disinclined to dismiss the principle of Proto-Mentalism (or what I call ‘Immaterial Monism’) if he understood the implications of the inherent awareness (or ‘Proto-Percipience’) of elementary matter. But his inattention is altogether innocent, not malicious, and I take no umbrage thereat. But what, we may rightly wonder, would he say about this excerpt from M4 concerning the crucial Quantum Mechanical experiment cited previously:
“If the particles that certain suitably contrived machines detect are somehow, in some sense, ‘aware’, being cognizant of the conditions under which they exist, it should come as no surprise that a collection of quanta, atoms, molecules, cells, organs, and organ systems should, over the course of hundreds of millions of years, under the influence of a selective, guiding principle aimed at ensuring survival, result in the accretion of awareness and the emergence of what we call consciousness. Consciousness is the epiphenomenal result of the assemblage of molecules whose very elementary constituents are demonstrably possessed of the capacity for awareness. We do not know what it is like for a quark or an electron or an atom to be aware, but there seems to be little reason to doubt that they are in some sense aware. We know, moreover, that we are composed of these very entities. The key to consciousness may lie in the rudimentary awareness of the constituents of which we are composed. Animism is alive (pun intended).” (M4, p.46)
There is something superficially novel about one of Nagel’s arguments. This concerns Naturalistic Teleology. In Dr. Nagel’s estimation, Darwinian developmental doctrines that describe the emergence of awareness from insentient matter are unconvincing; there is, instead, an overarching Order, Intelligence, or Entelechy inherent in existence. This Entity appreciates and is oriented toward “value”—that is, it is able and inclined to discern “good” and “bad”; we sentient souls are manifestations of this Entity; any adequate Theory of Everything (TOE) must explain the irreducible value of value. M4 explicitly embraces Teleology—the idea of an overarching, Proto-Mental Entity inherent in the Universe. I call this abysmal, nebulous entity “Nun”. [See “Nun, Nous, & Numerous: Symbols, Science, & Supreme Mathematics”, in Ch IV of M4 (Amen-Ra, 2007).] Of course this idea is not entirely new, hence my employment of ancient Egyptian iconography to express it in M4. I could just as easily have employed the appellations Amen, Ishvara, Brahman, Purusha, Ptah or other ancient cosmogonic concepts conveying the primacy of consciousness in the Cosmos. What does make the M4 dispensation of Divine Teleology nearly novel is that it dispenses with a Divinity and offers naturalistic arguments and evidence for its principal postulates and conclusions. Thus, Nagel’s admonition to intellectuals to take Teleological Analysis seriously is appreciated though anachronistic. M4 has already introduced and explored the explanatory implications of Teleology for the mystery of Mind. Our case is cogent and compelling. It need only be considered.
Dr. Nun Sava-Siva Amen-Ra, Ascetic Idealist Philosopher
Damascus, Maryland USA
7 September MMIV
How Nagel replaces reductive materialism is interesting, but his reasons for replacing it are misinformed and illogical. Maybe worth listening, but definitely supplement with something that deals with the multiverse theory and the weak anthropic principle, as so much of Nagel's arguments boil down to questions of likelihood. I suggest Tegemark's Mathematical Universe, as an antidote to Nagel's weakest points.
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I had to read the synopsis of this book again before reviewing it, because I wasn't sure what it was about since I listened to it a while ago. Some points make you think for a few minutes, but ultimately it comes off as weak.
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Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, by Thomas Nagel is just awful. Doubly awful. The premise provided by the author, is intriguing; the search for our consciousness. What is awareness and from whence does it come. The book attempts to characterize reductive materialism or physicalism and provide a better understanding of sentience, in effect the study of the inner workings of the mind. The author though is too full of himself. Providing developed and artful words in his analysis and premises – but never bothers to define the terms. He then uses $20 dollar words profusely, and can pack seven or eight in one sentence. Worst of all, he never provides a framework by which to conceptualize his theories. Just a machine gun listing of his concepts and conclusions. He himself uses the word phenomenology but never describes his own study results by providing the developed recognitions upon which it is based. Nagel’s use of $20 words for the object of using big words provides only ambiguity and an unlistenable diatribe.
What makes it all worse is that Brian Troxell was probably ordered to get this seven hour book read in three hours and forty five minutes. He did it but it took speed reading to get it done. What an ultimately perplexing but absorbing subject and it is a topic I would like to learn about but this is not the edition to employ for learning.
Okay, so I didn’t like Nagel’s literary process and thought the book was poorly read. I think studying what is and from where comes awareness is a necessary concept to research and study, but this work of Nagel’s is just not worth the effort. Another reviewer provided this following: How Nagel replaces reductive materialism is interesting, but his reasons for replacing it are misinformed and illogical. That was right on.
In fact, if you want a better synopsis of physicalism, read Amen-Ra's (an Audible commentator) review of the book. It's better than reading Mind and Cosmos.
Pure unmitigated nonsense. The ravings of a philosopher who thinks that what he wants to be true is a valid guide to understanding the world.
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