The new Thomas Nagel book

The title is *Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False*.  Here is a brief summary of his “teleological” argument.  My bottom lines on it:

1. He is good on attacking the hidden hypocrisies of many reductionists, secularists, and those who wish to have it both ways on religious modes of thinking.

2. He fully recognizes the absurdities (my word, not his) of dualism, and thinks them through carefully and honestly.  Bryan Caplan should beware.

3. The most typical sentence I found in the book was: “We can continue to hope for a transcendent self-understanding that is neither theistic nor reductionist.”

4. He doesn’t take seriously enough the view: “The Nagel theory of mind is simply wrong.”

5. People will dismiss his arguments to remain in their comfort zone, while temporarily forgetting he is smarter than they are and furthermore that many of their views do not make sense or cohere internally.

6. It is ultimately a book about how Christian many of us still are, and how closely the egocentric illusion is connected to a broadly religious worldview.  I don’t think he would see it that way.

For the pointer to the book — now out early on Kindle — I thank David Gordon.


That first sentence in the blurb should read: "The modern materialist approach to life has [so far] conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as [the appearance of] consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value."

But yes, he is a ton smarter than me and I look forward to reading the book.

And yet, as much as the cloud of phenomena known as "consciousness" are not fully understood, there is very good thinking on the topic that is materialist, based in empirical science, and not at all reductionist. See, as prime example, the very readable "Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity" by Thomas Metzinger:

Tyler, if you haven't read this, and are interested in this topic, Metzinger is a must read. This book is readable, and accessible to the ambitious lay person, but he also has a more "pop" accessible book that covers the same material:

It was well known by the seventeenth century why the appearance of consciousness and the existence of consciousness are the same thing. Few find much substance to disagree with in Descartes's explanation.

In the time it took me to go from Marginal Revolution, read the summary linked at Oxford Univeristy Press then come back to MR, Jon Martin had posted what I was going to say, ipsissimis verbis. Jung was right all along.

People will dismiss his arguments to remain in their comfort zone,

People are so comfortable in their comfort zone that they will not be interested in reading the book.

My first thought on reading the OUP summary is that scientists as a group are a lot more comfortable with "we don't know" tha philosophers are. To philosopher's "we don't know" is a problem, while to scientists it's an opportunity. So yeah, I won't read the book, and I'll stay in my "we don't know" comfort zone.


Becoming comfortable with saying "I don't know" is the ultimate comfort zone.

I find this to be a common-yet-mistaken view of philosophy. I think that philosophers view "we don't know" in much the same way as scientists do: as an invitation to try to find out. A book on mind should be seen as an attempt to find out, in the same way as a scientific experiment is.

The "modern materialist" approach doesn't give a very good explanation yet for the differentiation of cell lines, the directionality of time, how even mediocre human players still outthink the best computers at the game of Go, the process in the animal visual cortex for picking out and identifying objects in space, the ability to reliably understand a spoken sentence in a noisy room, or the details of protein folding. Likewise with the nature of consciousness.

A philosopher may see that as discrediting science. A scientist sees it as good work just waiting to be done.

I can't imagine a serious philosopher who takes any of those things as discrediting science. We (presumably) have very reliable evidence that protein folding occurs, and our current inability to explain the mechanism ought not to lead us to doubt that it does occur, assuming there is no other explanation for the evidence. In general I don't think anybody takes a lack of a clear explanation of the mechanism underlying P to be evidence against the field of study that yields the result 'that P'.

You had me at "I can't imagine a serious philosopher..."

I kid. I love wisdom myself. Here's the first paragraph from the blurb Tyler links to above:

"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."

Thomas Nagel- I laugh in your general direction.

So we have a feature of the universe - mind - that materialism doesn't seem to be able to accommodate. It doesn't seem very satisfying to then move to a picture of the universe which says that "everything is material, or reducible to the material... oh except for minds". If mind is a feature of the universe, then if materialism holds it *has* to be able to account for mind in purely materialistic terms.

If no coherent materialist account of mind is forthcoming, our only choice is to either doubt the existence of minds, or doubt the veracity of the [meta]physical theory that can't explain mind.

I want to apologize to Mr. Nagel. I'm sure he's very bright and wrote a book that might be thought-provoking in some ways.

But you're doing the same thing the blurb does. Science approaches the mind humbly, understanding that 'satisfying' results may or may not be forthcoming. But I don't find flights down 'subjective qualia' rabbit roles 'satisfying' myself, and, I don't see how, without generating some testable hypotheses, such introspection ultimately leads one anywhere.

Yes, there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in a scientific approach to life. And we are all free in our spare time to play in the garden of speculation on the unknown. For some philosophers, this may be a full-time occupation. Which is fun for them.

I think that you're not understanding the nature of the project. Materialism appears to exclude the possibility of minds. So unless there is a materialistic conception of mind to be had, materialism has to be false. The testable hypothesis is: a materialistic conception of mind must be coherent.

When you say that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in a scientific approach to life, do you mean that if we discover a particle that our best scientific theories say should not exist, that we should simply shrug our shoulders and not worry too much about it? My understanding of the scientific process is that such a discovery would cause us to doubt the truth of theories that appear to exclude the existence of that particle.

I believe I have a firm grasp on the problem, which you again conveniently illustrate when you say:

"So we have a feature of the universe – mind – that materialism doesn’t seem to be able to accommodate."

Materialism says that there is a great deal about the mind that we don't understand today, and there may be things about the mind that we will never understand. There are things we understand about the mind that we did not understand 20 years ago, thanks to philosophers like Dennett who think hard and come up with testable hypotheses. I don't believe any advances in our understanding of the mind have come from subjective navel-gazing that doesn't generate such hypotheses, and I doubt they will in the future.

Judge Nagels' competing theory by the same standard you apply to materialism and see how it grades out. You are demanding a coherent account of mind. Surely you admit that such a theory may be beyond the grasp of our puny minds.

Ah, the sound of group-self-glorification.

Scientists see "we don't know" as an opportunity - to remain ignorant? What are you saying here?

I haven't read the book, but I can easily believe that many reductionists and secularists are wrong about a lot of things without needing to be wrong about the fundamental question of whether the mind operates according to materialist principles. I find it harder to understand why anyone would ever really question materialism, unless they were doing so in order to protect some cherished superstition.

The statement "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" is almost meaningless - there are many unexplained features of our world, but none of these cause us to question the notion that these phenomena arise from physical processes which we will, one day, be able to understand. I guess there's just an unwillingness to accept that humans are just very advanced computers, and that one day (not too far from now) our source code will be sufficiently understood that we will no longer have recourse to mystical explanations. I think some people would regard such a future as boring, perhaps (falsely) that it would usher in an age of determinism, with no surprises about anything. For my part, I don't regard the human mind as the greatest mystery there is to solve, and would not assume that solving it is the end of all mystery, but it seems like Thomas Nagel does think that way (whilst inveighing against ego-centricity, natch.).

Precisely. "I cannot explain it" does not equal "It is unexplainable"

Though I wonder if "it is not explainable" equals "it is not entirely material in nature"... Does a materialist world really have to be, in principle, capable of total explanation? I'm genuinely curious if there is some credible account that it does...

The question put another way that may be more scientifically addressable is this: "Are there material levels to the universe that are not accessible to empirical analysis, as it now exists and as we can envision empirical analysis developing in the future, but whose existence can be inferred and is necessary to explain observed phenomena?" I think we'd need a physicist, perhaps a cosmologist, to answer that.

Of course not. There are already many things that we know we can't know. From Heisenberg's uncertainty principle to things happening outside the observable need for mystical explanations.

Humans evolved to survive, not to develop the cognitive capacity to explain how the universe works.

My dog will never understand the concept of algebra, but algebra exists nonetheless.

Well put. I was trying to figure out a way to say something like this point but didn't quite have the words.

Because materialism as a hypothesis is a very weak induction. The best theories in psychology posit lots of entities that are not atoms, nor even characterized in physical terms (note that this doesn't mean they are characterized in non-physical terms): memory traces, feelings, affective states, preferences, etc. And as it stands, none of these theories in psychology have been reduced to physical theories (and to say that they can be reduced in principle is just hand-waving). Thus, the materialist has to say that at some point in the future such theories will either be reduced to physical theories or eliminated in favor of more explanatory physical theories, and the evidence for this is a very weak induction across the history of science (e.g., vitalism is biology being displaced by chemical explanations). This way of drawing ontological conclusions often conflicts with the way many current philosophers (even materialists themselves) view ontology: what there is is what the best theories in science say there are. So if the best theories in psychology say there are memory traces, affective states, etc., then we should be committed to those entities as genuine constituents of the universe. This is not dualism, of course, which simply posits physical stuff and mind stuff, but pluralism, that accepts as constituents of the worlds whatever the best theories in science says there are. To accept anything else is to say that it is not the scientific method that allows us to draw ontological conclusions, but some other criteria (what?).

The major rhetorical problem as I see it is that the question is framed as materialism vs. dualism, which is simply a false dichotomy.

So if the best theories in psychology say there are memory traces, affective states, etc., then we should be committed to those entities as genuine constituents of the universe. This is not dualism, of course, which simply posits physical stuff and mind stuff, but pluralism, that accepts as constituents of the worlds whatever the best theories in science says there are.

So: what's "really" happening is that we are all a pile of subatomic particles. But we can just ignore that and regard eg. human moral agency as something authentic. Yes?

"what’s “really” happening is that we are all a pile of subatomic particles"

That's an assertion in need of an argument.

"Many current philosophers" .... "The best theories say..." is a bit vague. It also implies a consensus that does not exist. There are plenty of materialist psychologists. I should also point out that the thinking on memory traces posits a material basis for them:

The point is that if your criterion of ontological significance is what entities are posited by most supported scientific theories, then materialism as a thesis that states that the only entities that exist are those posited by physics is not supported. Most higher-level scientific theories have not been reduced or eliminated in favor of theories that only posit entities found in the theories of physics. This isn't to say that materialism can't be a fruitful research program, but rather that as an ontological thesis it is unjustified.

I'm aware of no preponderance of evidence or scientific consensus in any of the major disciplines that investigate consciousness regarding the invalidity of materialism, your vague "most scientists" and "most theories" notwithstanding. I am aware of the ever increasing body of empirical research in cognitive science. and neuroscience in particular that, offer evidence of the physical underpinnings of consciousness. I won't be vague in this either:

I could go on.

I guess I'm not being clear, since you're not at all addressing what I'm saying.

What I take the thesis of materialism (or physicalism) to state: the only things that exist are the entities over which the theories of physics range or physical complexes of such entities.

The simple question is what is the evidence for this theory? Well that depends in large part on your criteria for ontological significance; that is, by what criteria do we decide that something is a "genuine entity" of our universe. A philosophical tradition handed down from Quine and Sellars states that the criterion of ontological significance is (in the ideal) the scientific method itself. Find the theories that are successful at explaining the world, and then see what objects those theories range over.

What I'm saying is that if that is your criterion of ontological significance, then materialism as a thesis is unsupported. Yes, there is a large and fruitful research program in cognitive neuroscience, but cognitive neuroscience is not (as yet) exhaustive. There are lots of good, explanatory theories in psychology (not to mention, say, economics) that do not range over neurons or neuron assemblies. As such, we should be committed to those objects the theories do range over. And these theories have not been reduced to or eliminated in favor of theories that only range over physical entities. Therefore, we should admit into our ontology entities over and above physical entities.

To reject this, you either have to show that such theories are not good theories, show that such theories can be reduced to or eliminated in favor of theories that only range over physical entities, or change your criterion of ontological significance. It seems to me that most materialists (surreptitiously) do the latter: they say that given how science has proceeded, it is likely that in the future such theories will be reduced/eliminated. But this is a bit desperate. First, historical inductions are incredibly weak as far as inductions go, so any commitment to materialism based on such inductions would have to be similarly weak. Second, it changes the criterion of ontological significance from "what science says" to "our best guess about what science will say in the future". That shift clearly needs to be motivated by some argument. Third, it opens one up to all sorts of other historical inductions; for example, most past scientific theories have been false, therefore current scientific theories are likely false. Therefore we are not justified in believing in the truth of current scientific theories (and thus in their entities). This leaves any ontological conclusions (including materialism) in the lurch.

I've read Quine. His thinking is far from universally accepted. (See Daniel Dennet's "Quining Qualia" as a prime example.) Ontological definitions aside, what I hear you saying is that, "Science has not proved a negative (that non-materialism does not obtain), therefore would should affirm non-materialism until/unless it does" rather than just stick to what science has actually affirmed, e.g., neural correlates of various mental states that show strong evidence of mind arising from brain, research on going.

I think we simply disagree on some fundamental issues. I don't think further discussion will win over either of us to the other's camp. For my part, I don't see that subtle points regarding abstract ontological concepts supercede empirical evidence, or that we should broaden our thinking on the later to accommodate our thinking on the former: quite the opposite. Your process seems to involve moving from the abstract ontology to the science. I do not necessarily think that is fundamentally incorrect, but it is not my approach.

For one, "Quining Qualia" is not a disagreement with Quine, but a way to use some of Quine's methods to remove any ontological status from qualia; ultimately, Dennett doesn't think that there is any such thing as Qualia, and thus no "hard problem" of consciousness (to use a term from Chalmers).

Second, I'm definitely not "moving from the abstract ontology to the science." I think that's what materialists are doing; they have a strong intuition that materialism is true and modify their criterion of ontological significance to fit. I'm starting out with the question "what is the criterion of ontological significance" and then applying one answer (the scientific method) consistently.

Ultimately, I'm saying that to be a (consistent) materialist, you have to reject the scientific method as the prime criterion of ontological significance. That is, you have to say that the scientific method is not the best way to determine what kinds of things there are in the world. Now you can, of course, hold such a view, but an argument needs to be made for it.

In referencing Quining Qualia I was referring to Dennet's lampooning of Quine by verbing his name to mean "To deny resolutely the existence or importance of something real or significant" in reference to Quine's denial of the analytic/synthetic distinction. A simple and clear example of a prominent thinker disagreeing with Quine.

Perhaps there are materialists the are a priori convinced of materialism, but that is not where I other other convincing materialists I am familiar with start. Instead, it is quite the opposite: Empirical endeavors have shown nothing but the material, therefore nothing beyond the material is posited.

I don't see how affirming the scientific method as an tool of discovery in any way contradicts materialism. I just don't see how asking the question, "How do we verify the categories of entities & phenomena that can be said to exist", and coming up with the answer "The scientific method looks like a good tool" contradicts with materialism. Perhaps that's where we disagree, or where I simply don't understand your point about there being such a contradiction.

Dennett is very much a student of Quine; he's not lampooning him at all. "Quining", according to Dennett, is defined (satirically) as to deny the existence of something real or important. But, as Dennett says in the next sentence, he is going to do exactly that with qualia. Dennett does not thing that aualia exist (even though the existence of qualia seems undeniably obvious); hence "quining".

"I don’t see how affirming the scientific method as an tool of discovery in any way contradicts materialism."

Not as merely a tool, but as the primary criterion of ontological significance. What kinds of things are there in the world? Well, whatever our scientific theories says there are. But if we are taking that answer seriously, then materialism is unjustified. After all, our scientific theories range over many more things than subatomic particles and fundamental forces. In addition, those theories in which those entities are invoked cannot be reduced or eliminated in favor of theories that only range over subatomic particles and fundamental forces. Open up any recent issue of any major psychology, economics, or sociology journal and you will find lots of entities invoked that have not been reduced to physical entities. Even in biology you find such entities ("adaptation", for one). For materialism to be justified, you would have to argue that such theories will be reduced or eliminated in the future. But clearly this can't be done with any sort of epistemic strength. The only way to determine the validity of a theory is to do the science, not make weak inductions across the history of science.

Maybe "lampoon" over states it. A friendly joke at his old teacher's expense.

Anyway, you'll have to be more specific when you talk about things science says exist but do not have some sort of material base. Concepts are a human creation, reducible to a creation of the mind which has demonstrable correlates and precursors in the physical brain. "Adaptation" for example describes an observed process in the world. Whatever existence it has is tied to that physical process and the brain meat that gave rise to the descriptor.

Urstoff: are you seriously saying that economics can't be reduced to physics?

Sure, it isn't practical to do so, but it seems crystal clear to me that that the economic model of a collection of (quasi)-rational agents interacting in a marketplace can be reduced to statements about quarks and electrons.

Consciousness is tougher, but economics, really?

Your "pluralism" guarantees that your view of the set of "genuine constituents of the universe" changes frequently. This seems highly undesirable to me.

I draw ontological conclusions from a strong conviction that the universe is fundamentally simple.

I can build good analogues of memory traces/feelings/affective states/preferences out of atoms, right now, with help from manufacturers of computer electronics. I am not worried that future scientists will not be able to reduce such concepts to physics.

Why would that be undesirable? Particularly if ontology is an empirical matter. What we are justified in believing vis-a-vis science changes with new information; why shouldn't ontology?

You'd have to make an a priori argument for a particular ontology; good luck with that.

It seems to me that the issues you raise are about language more than they are about reality. The idea that scientific models REPRESENT reality instead of simply modelling it seems silly. Just because we describe things in a certain way does not necessarily mean that they exist in the same way. Multiple models can arrive at the same results; that doesn't mean there are many universes in which each model is separately reality.

That's a good point, but to take that tack ultimately leads to the anti-realist position that no scientific models/theories represent (i.e., accurately describe) the world. I think that's a legitimate viewpoint that is difficult to defeat, but I take materialism to be a realist thesis: the propositions of physics (or what have you) genuinely describe what the world is actually like.

But various strains of anti-realism and materialism often go together.

Cf: Thomas Hobbes, Nietzsche

Maybe particular contemporary varieties of reductive or eliminativist physicalism are necessarily realist through and through, but "materialism"? From my novice perspective that doesn't really match the history of materialism.

What other alternative models do we have that explain the universe as well or even close to what current mainstream science does?

None, but physics is not co-extensive with science.

"scientists as a group are a lot more comfortable with “we don’t know” tha philosophers are": except Climate Scientists, obviously.

Oooh, oooh, can I make the obvious climate denialist joke!

"That's cause climate scientists...

Aren't real scientists"

I've been content with Hobbes v. Aristotle on materialism v. teleology. Do I really have to revisit the question? *pout*

I'll read the introduction on Amazon, at least.

(This talk of Mind entering the recent stage of our cosmological history is triggering Hegel flashbacks).

"temporarily forgetting he is smarter than they are"
He will be smarter than most of his readers, but that doesn't mean his arguments are correct.

"many of their views do not make sense or cohere internally"
How can Nagel make coherent claims about immaterial objects? It seems impossible to make coherent claims about things that you are explicitly claiming don't exist - but then again, I'm probably forgetting how much smarter Nagel is than I am.

Does immaterial = nonexistent? What happens to the poor abstract objects?

abstract things (like gravity and ideas) exist in the relationships and interactions between material objects.

You might say "gravity certainly exists, and is immaterial" but only in a certain sense. Gravity happens to material objects. I think that the tricky part comes in because we think about gravity "abstractly". When we are thinking about gravity, it may seem immaterial, but in reality our thoughts about gravity themselves are just the interactions of material objects, so even when we consider gravity in the abstract it is a material happening.

"Thomas Nagel is smarter than me" may be a useful Bayesian prior, but the arguments he make in this book decrease the likelihood of that proposition being true.

Krugman's smarter that most MR readers; was that a convincing argument to accept his views?

I think that question reveals the hypocrisy of both sides. How many times have I been told I should listen to Krugman because he is smarter than me? That man has no other claim to fame other than being smarter than most people.

Most people are smarter than most people, and most authors are smarter than most readers, yet they disagree among each other (and refuse to adopt the views of the smartest among each other). Making the smartest person a dictator, even only a dictator who gets to move our views +0.1 towards her, would not necessarily yield wise outcomes.

We are told that Nagel is smarter than his critics. OK. What do you do when philosophers as smart as or smarter than Nagel disagree with him?
Just because many of the critics of Marx and Keynes are way below them in erudition, does it place these 2 economists beyond criticism? Being smarter is an absurd criterion in evaluating a thinker's arguments.

Right, it's known to be a fallacy under the name "appeal to authority".

This fall, I plan on reading both "Ignorance: how it drives science" by Stuart Firestein's AND Nagel's critique of science, though I expect the former to be more illuminating than the latter.

Why should a failure to explain " intentionality, meaning, and value" reflect on biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology?

Short answer: For the same reason that Stephen Hawking feels compelled to come up with untestable theories to explain everything without need of reference to a "god."

Longer answer: No particular scientific idea is subject to a critique on the basis of the failure to explain "intentionality, meaning, and value." But a materialistic world view that claims to be scientific is subject critique on the basis of "intentionality, meaning, and value." For example, some (most?) neurologists claim that they have eliminated the ghost in the machine. In other words, they think they have managed tie every aspect of consciousness to material factors and eliminated any possibility of a non-materialistic cause of consciousness. Ignore for a moment the logical fallacies that their mode of reasoning leads you into (using the same logic, I could prove the universe does not really exist), these people cannot consistently acknowledge the logical outcomes of what they claim to be true.

For example, they will say that consciousness does not really exist and it is just an illusion. But the illusions is valuable because it enables us to be moral and feel responsible. If they would just say the first part, it would not be so bad, but when they say the second part, you really do think they need to be schooled in "intentionality, meaning, and value."

And if you think I am exaggerating, read this

What are Stephen Hawking's untestable theories? If it's untestable it isn't really science; which in some ways is akin to the criticism string theory has to face.

PS. What exactly is a "materialistic worldview"? Is that a view that denies space for a God? I wasn't sure.

This is what I was referring to

I should have been more clear seeing as Stephen Hawking has put forth many theories that could be tested. But the Grand Design made such a splash when it came out that I thought it would be obvious what I was referring to. And yes, it is not science and it was widely pointed out as such even by atheists. My point was that Stephen Hawking felt compelled to venture out on the landscape of “intentionality" by unresolved scientific questions. I was just being a smart A** and saying that if Hawking was driven by science to getting into questions of “intentionality" why should not Nagel?

It was not meant to be taken as a valid argument. It was more just me trying to be droll and failing.

To answer your other question: Strictly speaking, a non-materialistic worldview does not have to have a "God" in the Western sense. And I suppose a "materialistic world view" sounds unnecessary pejorative and is often used by people to mean things that I don't mean. What I mean is the idea that everything that is is composed of one substance whose behavior is strictly governed by mathematics/reason. This idea can be traced back to the Greeks (Plato) to Spinoza and on through Einstein. This is what I would call a "materialistic world view."

Plato is not a materialist. Some might argue a monist. For Greek materialism see Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius...


I would certainly argue that Plato was a monist. And many people would call Spinoza a monist. And I guess by extension that would make Einstein a monist. So if it makes you happy, you can replace "materialistic" with monist. But as for me, I would argue that philosophy behind modern scientific thought is rational monist. I label it "materialistic" to distinguish it from the the mystical monist that you so often find in Asia.

From your comment, I would guess that you subscribe to the Carl Sagan school of thought regarding early Greek thought. I personally don't think that Carl Sagan ideas about the tragic nature of who became ascendent in Greek thought hold any water. To my mind, the success of modern physics is the success of Plato and Spinoza and the not the success of Democritus and Hume. My argument in brief would be that without calculus scientist would just be saying things like "we have counted a million white swans so all swans must be white." And calculus is largely a vindication of how Plato thought you should go about looking for the truth.

Don't get me wrong. I am not overly dogmatic about this. I understand that observation and testing are crucial, but I just think that people fail to understand just how little observation and testing will do for you without tools like calculus. See

I don't know what Carl Sagan says about Greek thought.

I don't read much on the history of the scientific method, but I'd tend to suspect secularist, materialist, monist, empiricists, in the vein of Hobbes and the French Materialists, would be the ones to look to.

TC isn't saying "Nagel is smarter than his readers, therefore he is correct/beyond criticism." He's predicting that some people will reject his arguments without considering them due to mood affiliation (Drink!). Why so much reading comprehension fail?

Non Papa, If TC is saying what you say he does , he ought to have just said: "People will dismiss his arguments to remain in their comfort zone". Period. Why add "while temporarily forgetting he is smarter than they are" ? It sounds like the fallacy of ad hominem .

About comfort zones: alas, that is exactly how my Marxist friends also talk about the critics of capitalism! They say the defenders of capitalism feel uncomfortable with Marx and so don't take the trouble of reading him seriously. They also remind me that these critics of Marx do not have even a tiny amount of his vast learning Schumpeter talks about in his biography of Marx. Libertarians would rightly dismiss such arguments. Referring to someone being smarter is than his critics is simply an irrelevant issue when we are discussing the validity of the critics' arguments.

Your confusing the issue of reading/considering of someone's work with agreeing with someone's work.

I don't have any use for Marx. But I think any economist/historian who has not read Marx has not been properly educated. That being said, we don't have time consider every idea or argument. In that sense, telling me that someone is smarter than me is a reasonable reason to make time to consider what they are saying.

Having said that, I am not sure I will find the time to read Nagel book. I have no doubt he is smarter than me. It is just that nothing Cowen said made me think that he has said anything that has not already been said by lots of other smart people and argued with lots of other smart people.

Are we playing mood affiliation McCarthyism?

I'll go next: By invoking the intelligence of the author in that slot, rather than an argument that he thinks is defensible, TC is engaging in mood affiliation with Nagel specifically and traditional views of the world more generally.

Like most of us, Tyler is a status seeker before he is a truth seeker.

5. There are a lot of people in the world smarter than me, and a lot less smart than I am. In both categories there are atheists, agnostics, and believers. If their is anything in the cosmos that is not materialist it is metaphysical, and I fail to see how the intelligence of anyone other than myself, as measured in the material world, has anything to do with whether they have access to Truth that transcends the material world, or whether I should believe them.

The following quotation gives me extreme doubts as to the firmness of this book's premises:

> "[T]here are doubts about whether the reality of such features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value can be accommodated in a universe consisting at the most basic level only of physical facts..."

Going down from the top:

consciousness – Maybe, I don't really know what consciousness is so there could be something here. There's already a lot of literature on this.
intentionality – Is he using fancy philosophy words to pretend that there is something interesting about intentionality?
meaning – Again, do I just not understand this word? How is meaning not just the generic word for the outcome of interpretation?
purpose – Okay he's lost me here... Do robots not have purpose? Again, I think I'm not understanding the meaning of this word, but I imagine I either a) disagree that "purpose" exists or b) disagree that it lacks trivial materialistic explanation.
thought – I'm pretty sure I know what this word means and it seems, unless I'm missing something, obviously materialistic.
value – Is this a misprint?

Am I just not smart enough to see why there is any doubt why at least these last 5 things are completely explainable as descriptive words for the thought processes of fully mechanistic beings? I have no trouble imagining humans building a robot that, like humans, at least believed it had all of the above.

Maybe I should read the book but I'm betting I will not be satisfied by whatever he says in defense of the claim quoted. I guess this is why I have always hated Anglo philosophy, it always seems to come down to word games and granting ontological status to entities simply because there's a word for them.

Sorry the formatting got all messed up in the conversion to HTML, I wish I could edit to fix it.

"Am I just not smart enough to see why there is any doubt why at least these last 5 things are completely explainable as descriptive words for the thought processes of fully mechanistic beings?"

To be a materialist you need to drop "the thought processes" and change "beings" to "objects". So, if you think that you can give an account of consciousness, intention, value, etc in terms of physical objects, then you get to be a reductive materialist about metaphysics.

Non Papa, If TC is saying what you say he does , he ought to have just said: “People will dismiss his [Nagel's] arguments to remain in their comfort zone”. Period. Why add “while temporarily forgetting he is smarter than they are” ? It sounds like the fallacy of ad hominem .

About comfort zones: alas, that is exactly how my Marxist friends also talk about the critics of capitalism! They say the defenders of capitalism feel uncomfortable with Marx and so don’t take the trouble of reading him seriously. They also remind me that these critics of Marx do not have even a tiny amount of his vast learning Schumpeter talks about in his biography of Marx. Libertarians would rightly dismiss such arguments. Referring to someone being smarter than his or her critics is simply an irrelevant issue when we are discussing the validity of the critics’ arguments.

Yes, it is an ad hom. I don't think its existence really detracts from the strength of his point. I assume he just included that part to mock atheists/secular humanists, who often (in my experience) assume that non-materialists, especially the religious, are not intelligent. It was an amusing jab.

Thanks for the clarification, Non Papa. I am a Hindu theist turned atheist. I agree that we atheists can be arrogant and that we do not have all the answers. One need not assume intellectual inferiority of theists while arguing against theism . The problem is that in India where I live, the theists are also equally arrogant and a sober debate between atheists and theists is very difficult. Theists in India, especially Muslims , have one advantage: they can always accuse the critics of hurting their religious sentiments. And if it is Islam that is being debated, you can be lynched ... though Hindu fanatics too are catching up fast on this count.

I don't think atheists have a monopoly on arrogance in this theist-atheist debate.

What if I say that often (in my experience) the religious are not intelligent? Is that now an amusing jab?

Bought it.

My question: Is there a reason for someone to read this book who is already familiar with all the age old arguments that lead up the modern age?

In my reading of philosophy there is basically two coins with an atheists and theist on both sides.

The first coin is "What does reason require?" Atheists argue that if God exists reason cannot be a guide to the truth (because an all powerful God could mess up causality among other things) so anyone who argues for God is essentially arguing against reason. The other side of the first coin says "God must exist because reason requires it (for reasons of causality among other things).

The other coin is where people argue we should give up on reason using various reasonable arguments. For example Kirkegård on the theistic side and Nietzsche on the atheists side.

I ask because it seems to me that so many "new and exciting books" are just retreads of old arguments. For example, Stephen Hawking's new "many worlds" theory just seems to me to be a retread of St. Anselm's/Gödel's ontological proof for God except that Hawking was trying to use the ontological proof to show that God did not need to exist. It was kinda of funny to see Hawking try to twist things around, but I did not buy the ontological argument the first time around and Stephen Hawking's treatment of the idea was even worse (probably because he does not seem to have realized what he was doing).

For what it is worth, back when I had time I wrote this this as my take on the subject. But it is doubtful that it is worth reading as it is not written by someone smarter than you.

Is it just me, or is Daniel Dennett wonderful on Darwin and as good as anyone on the difficult subject of consciousness? I don't think responsible science purports to know more than it does, and my gut says Mr. Nagels's book doesn't hold much of interest.

Seconding here the idea that probably this doesn't raise any points that haven't already been addressed somewhere by Dennett. Especially 'Freedom Evolves,' I find that to be one of the best philosophical works on free will, evolution, and consciousness from a perspective diametrically opposed to Nagel's.

I think there's way too much obfuscation around this owing to the politically charged nature of the materialism/theism/spiritualism question, especially in the United States and in certain circles of literate debate. Is materialism a premise that really matters in most actual scientific work? Is it a 'theory' on which the whole edifice rests? Of course not - it's at best a working assumption, really the basis of any kind of investigation into nature. You assume that there are not inaccessible, magical causes of things, or at least bracket them (a la Newton), and then attempt to treat the accessible, natural causes of things in a coherent, rigorous manner. You see how far that takes you, revising theories as you go, with ones that better capture the relevant phenomena generally superseding others over time.

Cognitive scientists aren't pursuing some devious agenda to demean and undermine the notions of consciousness (cf. comments above re: them claiming to have 'eliminated the ghost in the machine'). They're just analyzing what goes on in the brain and nervous system using the empirical tools we have, and on that basis constructing theoretical models in accord with the data. True 'reduction' to physics is a long way away, here and elsewhere in biology, but that's still no evidence against materialism/physicalism. If the mind starts seeming to do things that grossly defy what we know about the physical universe, then we may wish to question the premises of our materialism as it exists. Now that we have computers, which are resolutely material objects, it's clear that some mind-like functions can be performed by physical systems, which lends support to a particular sort of materialism, thought not necessarily the correct form thereof. But either: a mature cognitive science concludes that whatever set of causes it's established for cognition are in fact rigorously understandable by science and supported by observation, in which case they become part of the material world as we understand it; or the phenomena of consciousness remain stubborn and mysterious, in which case materialists will continue to look for material causes, whilst folks like Nagel will write screeds about the specialness of this particular mystery. It's unclear what the latter position really offers in the way of concrete implications - should we shutter neuroscience departments, declare the question of consciousness unworthy of scientific study, or is there going to be some esoteric science of the supposedly supernatural, special, non-material mind? I'm intrigued now to check out this book, but doubt it adds much to the debate that hasn't already been said, unless of course it provides some very surprising evidence for the mind acting in ways that conflict with the laws of physics... these folks keep the materialists on their toes, though.

Really the one to look at is Dennett, he gives the best affirmative case for why consciousness, intentionality, and volition aren't some huge mystery that should tempt us to throw out physicalism. Some neuroscience and neuroscientifically informed philosophy does I think edge too close to eliminativism w/r/t consciousness and free will, but Nagel is way too far toward mysterianism.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it's been my understanding (generally through other sources) that Dennett's explanations on consciousness hinged in great part on dismissing the importance of qualia and one's subjective experience in general. This seems like a big problem.

From Nagel's blurb:

"In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement."

Displaced by what? I think we all agree physical sciences cannot explain everything. But until we have a competing alternative isn't it premature to talk about displacing it? Even if this is a plea for more work on alternative I'm not even sure where Nagel would have us start?

People educated in the Western tradition set up a dichotomy between materialism and theism, forgetting the Truth. Anyone in Sri Lanka, Thailand, or any Buddhist country can explain to you the non-theistic, non-materialist universe. May Thomas Nagel become a Buddhist in this life, or the next! And you too, dear reader---the Truth is already known!

So, what exactly do you have in mind when claiming "absurdities of dualism", Tyler? Fess up, please!

i love the people who seem to have trouble distinguishing between unicorns and horses (with mind being a unicorn, and brain being a horse). you can't refute materialism just by pointing out we can't do the math. the question is whether there's anything other than the material. given we only have scientific evidence of the material, the burden should be on those who believe in the anything else (qualia, consciousness, zombies just like us without consciousness, etc.) to establish its existence before we have to try to explain how the material might generate it. put another way, we have no evidence a purely material brain made of neurons/chemicals/etc. shouldn't give rise to exactly what we experience, consciousness, qualia, etc. anyone who thinks the material doesn't line up with the experience has to justify that position -- prove that the neurons and chemicals can't account for qualia, consciousness, etc. -- before it's even an issue (just mouthing words like "qualia" and "thisness" and "experience" is meaningless without the zombie just like us that doesn't have those experiences, which might establish that neurons and chemicals don't generate all the experience, and there are no such zombies around).

One chapter in, I'm dismayed at his conflation of Darwin's "modification" with genetic mutation. Sexual combination is a strong factor as well.

I was looking forward to a defense of dualism or mental monism, but if his argument rests on the implausibiity of evolution, it's a bust for me.

The billion year gradual emergence of ever more complicated forms of life is beyond serious dispute.

Seriously? You may have just tipped me from reading this book to not bothering?

See this:

Wow. So Nagle reviews a book and says "Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem."

Heresy. Burn him at the stake.

For Leiter (and probably others here), it's OK to flirt with telology as long as you make clear that you would never to anywhere near a monotheistic religion. I remember Matthew Yglesias claimed to be impressed by Nick Bostrom's simulation argument.

Again: with regard to evolution, the process of natural selection cannot account for the actual history without an adequate supply of viable mutations, and I believe it remains an open question whether this could have been provided in geological time merely as a result of chemical accident, without the operation of some other factors determining and restricting the forms of genetic variation.

Any alternative to the "Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature" is almost certainly wrong. The "Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature" is probably correct. I have yet to see any compelling argument against it.

"The Ego Trick: What Does It Mean To Be You" by Julian Baggini is a persuasive critique of dualism. Baggini notes that while earlier dualists used to argue that a non-material entity like a soul is needed to animate a body, now even the theologian Swinburne who believes in the existence of a soul concedes that a body is required to power souls. The dualists have therefore moved more in the direction of a materialist viewpoint.

serious question for the smart people on the board: no matter how smart someone like nagel is, everytime someone asserts that X (consciousness, redness, etc.) doesn't seem like the product of "merely" neurons firing, i have absolutely no idea what basis they have for the statement (even though they generally assume it's obvious). i have no freestanding conception of what neurons firing in combination might or should "feel" like, and no basis to assume it shouldn't generate what it apparently does (assuming science is right about what's going on in my head, the end result is consciousness, redness, etc.). put another way, i have no strawman in mind of neurons firing but without any "feeling" or "experience" being generated, thus requiring some explanation for why "mere" neurons firing can generate the wonder that is consciousness, redness, etc. what am i missing?

bonus: why do people think purely internal states can have any real role in science? that is, you can claim your experience of red contains some special "redness" sauce, but that alone gets me (and us) nowhere.

I'll take a stab at answering (though I'm not that smart) but these things interest me.

According to my understanding of the arguments, nothing in all the most detailed and sophisticated understanding of the physical brain leads to how we experience anything. For example, David Chalmers notes that Dennett's explanations of consciousness are perfectly compatible with zombie robots with visionary and auditory apparatus that nevertheless don't experience anything.

WTR to second question: Our internal states are of course subjective, but they are also the very thing we are most familiar with. They are, arguably, thus the most important aspect of the world we experience (since it is the foundation of our experience itself). Explaining it is thus very important to science.

But once you've said "but that doesn't explain how it feels to me?" where do you go from there? I can't imagine what Nagel spends his book talking about, but I very much doubt it is useful.

So philosophers will likely enjoy this sanctuary indefinitely. Good for them.

Even though you might say something like "that doesn't explain how it feels to you," you're still left with the experience. While the content or feel of experience no doubt varies from person to person, is still real and requires explaining.

physics had some kind of identity crisis a century ago, mechanics/deterministic view hit the end of the road. quantum physics concepts opened a new road.

ps. you don't need to be a religious guy to criticize reductionists =)

Quantum mechanics is reductionist, just like classical mechanics. Moreover all the successes of classical mechanics are still accurate descriptions of the world, even though the theory has been extended by quantum mechanics. This is the virtue of empirical science.

And for this reason I can assert that within quantum mechanics there is a complete, extremely accurate description of all every-day phenomenon. Physicists search for new particles and new forces at high energies but none of these have any sway at everyday distance / energy scales, where the fundamental interactions are completely understood within the framework of an effective theory valid at those distance / energy scales.

We don't know how consciousness works, but we know our brains are made of atoms and we know how atoms work. When I become aware of information, like what's on this web page, it is via purely materialistic things (like photons interacting with my eye), and after I make a decision based on that information, like to respond to your post, my effect on the world is purely materialistic (like the electric signal communicated via my ISP). Between these events atoms are moving about in my brain. Their motion is complicated but there is no room for any "immaterial consciousness" to have any effect unless the laws of physics describing those atoms are broken. That is, we understand all of the forces those atoms feel and their dynamics are a closed system.

To suppose an immaterial consciousness is thus a rejection of science -- a rejection of well-established science like how atoms interact. It's akin to believing a person who's been dead for three days can come alive again and be fully functioning as normal, and then some time later fly up into space. There is no reason to believe other than to perpetuate fairy tales that give people hope for special meaning and eternal life.

But are you sure that giving an account of the physics of the situation amounts to giving a full account of everything that's going on there? That's the question. You balk at immaterial consciousness, I think, because you think there's no room for immaterial entities in the physical ontology developed by physical scientists (which is reasonable). But perhaps you're just looking at the world on the wrong level.

One thing is for sure: this book will get a scathing review from Daniel Dennett. (And Patricia Churchland will just laugh.)

Fascinating discussion. I repeat the provocative Oxford University Press blurb first sentence (presumably approved by Prof. Nagel):

"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."

Why would the failure of current science to fully explain any of these phenomena "unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology"? This claim seems to be nothing more than a recycling of the old "god of the gaps" argument. Science can't currently explain the phenomenon; therefore, something mysterious or numinous or nonscientific (often a God of some sort) must be at work.

When advanced by believers, "God of the gaps" is a curiously crabbed view of The Divinity. In antiquity, the argument could be advanced to "explain" virtually every mind-blowing natural phenomenon, like the motion of the planets. Now, as our knowledge of the natural world has exponentially increased, the role of the "god of the gaps" gets more and more circumscribed.

Scientific theories are inherently provisional, and the state of our knowledge of the natural world approaches the "truth" about the natural world only asymptotically. Conventional Newtonian physics could not explain the puzzling results of the Michelson Morley experiment (i.e., the constant velocity of light, regardless of whether one was moving toward or away from the light source). But that didn't mean scientists threw up their hands about the "entire naturalistic world picture." Einstein then developed a theory that could explain this counterintuitive phenomenon. And Newtonian physics remains valuable in countless other applications.

Today, cosmologists and astrophysicists are puzzled by the exact nature of dark matter and dark energy. In the fullness of time, we may understand these phenomena. Or we may not. But just because we don't currently fully understand something about nature doesn't, to my mind, suggest in any way that we should consider discarding the empirical scientific method. The scientific method – I hesitate to call it "naturalism" or "materialism" because those terms may have confusingly broader philosophical implications – is far away the best method of uncovering the truth about the natural world that has ever been developed by man. Nothing else comes close.

A few comments on the subject. The problem with bare materialism as a philosophical position (not science as such) comes from the oft stated "explanatory gap" between mind and matter. Its not that the brains got nothing to do with the "mind" its quite clear that it does, its a question of whether the physical (only physical) is the "complete" story. We can come full circle and bring things back to Aristotle, the water is boiling because its at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, but also because I wanted to make tea. These are two entirely different modes of explanation. The argument is whether the material really crowds out (reduces to) the physical in a complete totalizing way. I admit scepticism on this point. In part the people that talk about the "non-causal mysterious" mind seem to be missing this point. I might have quite a few reasons for making tea and those reasons would have causes, but those causes while having a relationship to atoms are not atoms. This makes the mind an odd thing, but since the mind is absolutely everything about existence that makes the mind body problem a substantial one. Im curious to see what nagel does with it. At any rate science is of course quite effective at the "natural" world, the question is- is that everything? Does natural world= everything? Or are there non-physical entities that are nonetheless vital to......existence (I'd use Universe, but that term of necessity seems to refer to all the "physical" items, which is the matter in dispute anyway no? so perhaps what nagel is getting at is.....can "matter" answer everything? Maybe it can, maybe not, but it really does seem like a conceptual roadblock to me, though Im not unwilling accept materialism "we'll wait and see" doesnt satisfy my intuition about the phenomenon, and honestly even abstractly its tough for me to think of something that could, because it doesnt seem like a "technical" limit but a catagorical one. Like trying to answer how many numbers are in a sunrise or what the color of Beethovens 5th symphony is, something just doesnt translate right.

Why even assert the existence of something like "matter" which is utterly unfindable, unprovable, invisible, intangible, inaudible, and useless as an explanation for anything? Why assert the existence of anything outside the field of awareness which is all that is ever known directly?

note - I don't mean to be advocating any particular philosophic position, nor am I even implying that materialism is wrong - just wanted to clarify that.

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