An instrument of mischief

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.

That’s unfortunate.



  1. says

    Nagel seems to be floundering around again – his “bat” stuff obscures more than it reveals about the nature of consciousness – but Leitner and Weisberg are simply following the herd by refusing to acknowledge the fundamentally subjective character of existence. The objective discrepancies which Nagel draws attention to, such as the problem of how consciousness was first (apparently) instantiated in animals, are nevertheless provocative hints for anyone honestly interested in making a comprehensive empirical enquiry into reality. Ignoring the fact of your own subjectivity doesn’t make you “proper” scientist; it makes you a fool.

  2. A. Noyd says

    From the article:

    Nagel endorses the idea that explanation and prediction are symmetrical: “An explanation must show why it was likely that an event of that type occurred.”

    Here’s the thing, though. Evolution doesn’t depend on likely events. It amplifies unlikely events in proportion to their benefit, and that benefit is determined by the situation of the relevant organisms at the time of any given event.

    Also, Nagel seems to hold a rather anthropocentric view of life. While it’s good to try to explain “the development of organisms with a subjective point of view”, the explanation can’t overlook how most of life gets on just fine without being conscious.

  3. says

    I will probably read it, although it is not going to the front of my “in book” tray (which seems to keep getting bigger faster than I can make it get any smaller). However, from reading prior Nagel, and what is in this article (thanks Ophelia), I am not expecting much.

    Nagel can go ahead and use “reductionism” as a pejorative to try to scare folks, but it really has no meaning in this context. The physics does what it does no matter what you call it. He still will have a problem with introducing some kind of new physics that just happened at some point in the chain of our ancestors that he can’t find. Also, the same problem pops up for each of us, individually, as we develop from single cells to colonies of cells to self-awareness. When does the special physics take over?

    Our “common sense” is no different from what we “feel” is true. Much of the time, our experiences of our lives have conditioned that to be quite useful. Moral values can also come from this and be helpful to life, however, there is nothing “objective” or “provable” about it. Recognizing that we have no other choice but to take on the burden of construction of our values out of our desires for the kind of world we want, is stepping up and facing reality. Sorry Nagel, no magic in how you happen to feel about it.

  4. chrislawson says


    I am a hard materialist, which means I do think pretty much everything comes down to physics. The difference between my view and the straw man built by anti-materialists is that I don’t think we understand physics perfectly, so I don’t think we can build a model that crunches numbers on the quark level to yield predictions on the level of chemistry, let alone psychology…in fact, I doubt such a model is computationally possible even if we did understand quantum theory perfectly.

    I can understand where the straw man comes from. Writers like Bob Park, whom I love reading for his scientific skepticism, raises my blood pressure the further he gets from his core field of physics and seems to hold the belief that physics is the only real science. But a few physics-blinkered people like Park do not make it less of a straw man when one subset of rhetorical flaws is extrapolated to all of materialism.

  5. Rodney Nelson says

    I have not read Nagel’s book nor am I likely to.

    From Leiter and Weisberg’s review:

    Nagel asks: If our moral faculties are simply the result of evolution, how can they be reliable measures of objective moral truth? Why should evolution prefer the perception of moral truth to whatever happens to be advantageous for reproduction? Thus, if some of our moral beliefs really are objectively true, then they cannot be the result of evolution. And because he is confident that we do know some objective moral truths, Nagel concludes that “a Darwinian account of the motives underlying moral judgment must be false, in spite of the scientific consensus in its favor.” Recognizing that readers will find this inference jarring, Nagel adds: “I, even more strangely, am relying on a philosophical claim to refute a scientific theory supported by empirical evidence.”

    I understand many philosophers like the idea of objective moral truths. The notion has never appealed to me. In my opinion, morality is cultural. “Thou shalt not kill” is generally taken as an objective moral truth. But the exceptions to this “truth” are widespread. Killing is often considered moral during wartime, in self-defense, when given as a legal judgement, or in the old Texas justification: “He needed killing.”

    Many societies accept killing due to family or clan feuds. In his book The Steel Bonnets on the Elizabethan English-Scottish borders, George Macdonald Fraser has a chart showing the various feuds going on in that society. The Kerr family was at feud with the Turnbulls, the Scotts, the Selbys, the Rutherfords, the Herons, the Collingwoods, and the entire town of Jedburgh. In the late 1500s a Kerr was more likely to die of murder than old age. This was considered moral by most borderers.

    So I reject a major reason for Nagel’s rejection of evolution. Just because a philosophical idea is appealing to him is a poor reason to discard a theory bolstered by empirical evidence.

  6. Ian MacDougall says

    Leiter and Weisberg:

    “We have not witnessed the reduction of psychology to biology, biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics, but rather the proliferation of fields like neuroscience and evolutionary biology that explain psychological and biological phenomena in terms unrecognizable by physics. As the philosopher of biology Philip Kitcher pointed out some thirty years ago, even classical genetics has not been fully reduced to molecular genetics, and that reduction would have been wholly within one field. We simply do not see any serious attempts to reduce all the ‘higher’ sciences to the laws of physics.”

    I think that it is important to distinguish two categories here.
    ‘X’ constitutes one category, and ‘the study of X’ another one entirely.

    To the best of my present knowledge, I am a collection of fundamental packets, of both matter and energy. These fundamental packets are studied AS SUCH by people called physicists. The packets are organised into atoms, and the atoms into molecules, ions and perhaps other such species, which in turn are studied AS SUCH by chemists. And so on ‘up’ through biochemistry, molecular biology, cytology and the rest to ecology and beyond.

    The jargon of psychology may be unfamiliar to the physicist, but that does not mean that the brain is built out of fundamental packets unfamiliar to the physicist.

    But then again, I could be wrong. After all, I am not God; who by the way could be in that bush that’s on fire over yonder.

  7. eveningperson says

    Very briefly, I’d expand on this if I had time.

    “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?…”

    Seems to me this is a totally false assertion. Common sense tells us, in most places, that the bit of the earth we know is randomly lumpy. In a few places it is flat. In some places, it’s covered by water. Beyond that is neither obvious nor evident.

    Extending this idea to the bit of the earth unknown to us is not ‘common-sense’, it is reasoning – whether it’s wrong (as in the flat-earth theory) or right.

    Do we actually know what most ancient people believed about the shaper of the earth? My guess is no, but I’ll bet most of the people who ever thought about the matter did not simply use ‘common sense’ but actually reasoned about it.

    The idea that the earth is not ‘flat’ perhaps goes back before classical times – am I wrong? And the people who defended the geocentric theory did not do so on the grounds that it was ‘common-sense’, they used faulty reasoning.

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