Have you read the Leiter and Weisberg review of Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False? It’s pretty entertaining.
First there’s theoretical reductionism: it’s all physics. Nobody thinks that, so it’s silly to bother with it. Second there’s naturalism: what there is is what there is. (That’s my version. Theirs is the proper one.) Lots think that, so what’s Nagel’s problem with it? Well he reads “widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the nonspecialist” and he notices that science often contradicts common sense.
This style of argument does not, alas, have a promising history. After all, what could be more common-sensical, obvious or evident than the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around the earth?…Happily, Nagel does not attempt to repudiate the Copernican revolution in astronomy, despite its hostility to common sense. But he displays none of the same humility when it comes to his preferred claims of common sense—the kind of humility that nearly 400 years of nonevident yet true scientific discoveries should engender. Are we really supposed to abandon a massively successful scientific research program because Nagel finds some scientific claims hard to square with what he thinks is obvious and “undeniable,” such as his confidence that his “clearest moral…reasonings are objectively valid”?
In support of his skepticism, Nagel writes: “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 than it was in Aristotle’s day.” This seems to us perhaps the most startling sentence in all of Mind and Cosmos. Epistemic humility—the recognition that we could be wrong—is a virtue in science as it is in daily life, but surely we have some reason for thinking, some four centuries after the start of the scientific revolution, that Aristotle was on the wrong track and that we are not, or at least not yet.
See what I mean? Entertaining.
And then, Nagel thinks there are objective moral truths, and that that fact shows that naturalism is wrong.
there is nothing remotely common-sensical about Nagel’s confidence in the objectivity of moral truth. While Nagel and his compatriots apparently take very seriously their moral opinions—so seriously that they find it incredible to suggest that their “confidence in the objective truth of [their] moral beliefs” might, in fact, be “completely illusory”—this can hardly claim the mantle of “the common sense view.” Ordinary opinion sometimes tends toward objectivism, to be sure—often by relying on religious assumptions that Nagel explicitly rejects—but it also often veers toward social or cultural relativism about morality. Whether morality is truly objective is a philosopher’s claim (and a controversial one even among philosophers) about which “common sense” is either agnostic or mixed.
Sam Harris notwithstanding.
And then Nagel argues for teleology. I’m beginning to be tempted to read the book now.
Or perhaps not.
We conclude with a comment about truth in advertising. Nagel’s arguments against reductionism are quixotic, and his arguments against naturalism are unconvincing. He aspires to develop “rival alternative conceptions” to what he calls the materialist neo-Darwinian worldview, yet he never clearly articulates this rival conception, nor does he give us any reason to think that “the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” Mind and Cosmos is certainly an apt title for Nagel’s philosophical meditations, but his subtitle—”Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”—is highly misleading. Nagel, by his own admission, relies only on popular science writing and brings to bear idiosyncratic and often outdated views about a whole host of issues, from the objectivity of moral truth to the nature of explanation. No one could possibly think he has shown that a massively successful scientific research program like the one inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “is almost certainly false.” The subtitle seems intended to market the book to evolution deniers, intelligent-design acolytes, religious fanatics and others who are not really interested in the substantive scientific and philosophical issues. Even a philosopher sympathetic to Nagel’s worries about the naturalistic worldview would not claim this volume comes close to living up to that subtitle. Its only effect will be to make the book an instrument of mischief.