Consciousness / mind · philosophy

Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos

I’m a little late to the party with this book, but I managed to get linked to a full pdf and started in on it. I had a general idea of Nagel’s position before going into it, and I am actually pretty sympathetic to his concerns; however, I think he just has a totally problematic concept of scientific explanation. In addition to that he has a self-acknowledged ignorance about the relevant science, and he approvingly quotes leaders of the Intelligent Design movement, an act that, regardless of its appropriateness, just begs for controversy.

Anyhow, I think he is somewhat right about how subjective experience has been removed from our scientific endeavors and we are left with a, for example, mathematical abstraction, postponing understanding of our phenomenal states for the future. I am also not a fan of phyicSalism (to borrow Strawsons’ term) for similar reasons; indeed, my strong sympathies for panpsychism/experientialism come from its recognition that our scientific understanding is a description of entities that tells us nothing about their intrinsic nature. I’m getting off-topic.

One of the things I found most ridiculous about Nagel’s book is his insisting that a scientific explanation of consciousness does not just need to allow for it, but it should make it seem inevitable; there’s a teleological perspective here. This is why he takes those sorts of ID statistical arguments about evolution – there’s just no way non-teleological genetic material would have the time to produce organized, conscious creatures like ourselves. So he feels that the random chance is not satisfying (this is strange in and of itself; while to some degree intuitions and desire for economical metaphysics inform our positions, Nagel seems to think that he dissatisfaction is somehow grounds to argue against the extreme majority scientific position – after admitting he has no expertise near the beginning of his book!!), thinks there has to be goal-directed evolution, and this combines with a position that scientific explanation of consciousness should entail it in a very narrow sense. And, hey, maybe this is just Nagel’s attempt at the sort of scientific revolution he sees as necessary to give a naturalistic account of consciousness, but that is simply not how scientific explanations work. It’s not particularly surprising that philosophers of science and biological scientists have taken him to task most harshly. By any right we have an adequate explanation of life’s diversity and complexity in the theory of evolution.

Anyways, I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but I was incredibly surprised at the quality of the work. I have a charitable attitude toward the concerns that motivate his position, but for a professional academic to so horribly mangle the subject matter – something that could have been easily avoided with consultation and taking normative attitude toward his status as a layperson – is kind of depressing.

OH, and I somehow forgot to mention one of the biggest disasters. He adopts an ad hominem stance for his argument, and directs it at a heavily reductionist materialism – not in the simple ontological sense, but in the full theory-reduction sense. And that’s kind of a giant issue as almost nobody holds that position. How does this happen, actually?!


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