Before you decide
Over 20,000 selectors

Write and post your long form essays and articles on The Post.
Is your name welcomed below? Then you can post here. Otherwise, click "Log In" to post!
Welcome! » Log In » Create A New Profile

Nagel’s Cosmos: Teleology Without Intention?

Posted by tuk22 
Nagel’s Cosmos: Teleology Without Intention?
March 02, 2015 06:23PM
Nagel’s Cosmos: Teleology Without Intention?


In Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, a prolific and highly regarded philosopher, defends, by his own admission, “the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life.” He continues, “It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection” (6). Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker is “a canonical expression” of the standard account, and, though it “seems to convince practically everyone” (5n2), Nagel finds it “ hard to believe” (5). His real enemy is “a reductive materialism that purports to capture life and mind through its neo-Darwinian extension,” calling it “a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense” (128). About those who oppose Darwin, he writes, “They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair” (10). Nevertheless, he does not share the religious convictions of some of Darwin’s critics. On the contrary, Nagel’s project is explicitly atheistic (e.g., 95), and he endorses a utopian hope in the ability of the natural sciences to produce understanding (69).

Nagel believes that we should accept the failure of our contemporary scientific account of the world in order to make way for a revolution. Humanity has made great progress by excluding the mind from the material world, but the time has come to accept the facts: we need to have a new account with mind woven into the fabric of the universe. Because we are committed to explaining the universe in terms of physical stuff interacting via cause and effect, we have an impossibly hard time explaining how consciousness, cognition, and value can possibly arise. Nagel takes a chapter for each of these three—consciousness, cognition, and value—in order to show how contemporary science can neither explain how such things could come into being and even, in fact, what they really are. We’ll take each in turn.

Consciousness. Either a mental event (e.g,. pain or a sensation) is the same thing as a physical event (e.g., a brain state), or it isn’t. If it is the same, then it’s only something that we discover, because they certainly seem so very different. (No untutored person smells a rose and believes that the smell of the rose just is some neurological activity.) But what distinguishes the two things—the mental and the physical—conceptually? The dualist says that it’s a nonphysical property, which is hardly what materialists will want to say (39). So they offer a causal relationship between the physical and the mental (39). In doing so, they lose the mental, as understood in terms of subjective appearances (40). When I’m told that the pain I’m experiencing in my foot just is a chemical interaction in my brain, it should cause me to doubt whether the person speaking to me has ever stubbed his toe.

We need more than a cause; we need an explanation, both of how it is that “certain complex physical systems are also mental” and also “a historical account of how such systems arose” (54). If we pursue a reductive strategy, we’ll either lose the mental (the pain you’re experiencing is just a brain event) or we’ll have to start thinking that we are composed of elementary constituents that are not entirely physical (54). If we pursue an emergent strategy—that somehow a collection of physical stuff produces mental life—then it “seems like magic” (56) because “it has the disadvantage of postulating the brute fact of emergence, not explainable in terms of anything more basic, and therefore essentially mysterious” (60–61).

Consequently, neither a reductive account nor an emergent account of consciousness is palatable. So it’s time to shop for an alternative. One such alternative is an intentional account. According to this account, someone—God, for example—operates in the world to guarantee the development of conscious beings. Nagel finds this unsatisfactory, for at least two reasons; first, he wants a secular theory, and, second, the idea that development in the natural world requires intervention is inelegant (66).

Teleology without intention is Nagel’s alternative account: there must be teleological laws that govern the organization of matter, including the emergence of consciousness (64).

Cognition. Cognition is even more problematic from a contemporary evolutionary account. Here we are talking not simply about subjective awareness but the ability “to transcend subjectivity and to discover what is objectively the case” (72). Reasons have independent authority apart from an evolutionary account; in fact, evolutionary theory does nothing to support reasoning but, instead, presupposes it (80–81). A computer model of rationality in which the mind is “a computer built out of a large number of transistor-like homunculi” can’t do the work, because such a metaphor can “account for behavioral output, but not for understanding” (87). These worries suggest that an emergent answer is more likely, but an emergent answer requires a nonmysterious account of how consciousness emerges. Again, the answer is teleology, as opposed to “all three of the other candidate explanations: chance, creationism, and directionless physical law” (91).

Value. Nagel offers a clear account of the differences between subjectivism—“the right answer depends on our attitudes and dispositions”—and the realist one—“our judgments attempt to identify the right answer and to bring our attitudes into accord with us” (99). Nagel agrees with Sharon Street’s claim (in his words) that “moral realism is incompatible with a Darwinian account of the evolutionary influence on our faculties of moral and evaluative judgment” (105). Though Street sees this incompatibility as a reason to give up on moral realism, Nagel thinks that, on the contrary, “since moral realism is true, a Darwinian account of the motives underlying moral judgment must be false, in spite of the scientific consensus in its favor” (105). For Nagel, “the scientific credentials of Darwinism … are not enough to dislodge the immediate conviction that objectivity is not an illusion with respect to basic judgments of value” (110). He remains “convinced that pain is really bad, and not just something we hate, and that pleasure is really good, and not just something we like” (110).

But can teleology without intention do the work that he requires? “I am not confident,” Nagel writes, “that this Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention makes sense, but I do not at the moment see why it doesn’t” (93). Here’s why it doesn’t: teleology without intention makes sense within Aristotle’s static and eternal universe, but it doesn’t within Nagel’s dynamic and evolutionary one. (My thanks to J. T. Bridges for bringing these issues to my attention.)

Aristotle could say that there have always been oak trees giving off acorns that flourish into oak trees. By contrast, Nagel’s evolution with teleology is not static. So he has to say that the proper function of a bacterium is doing what bacteria do (117) but also that the proper function of a bacterium is not doing what bacteria do (i.e., being goal-directed towards the evolution of higher life forms). It’s not a straightforward contradiction, but it demands an explanation. If something acts on its own for one thing and yet delivers both that thing and a further unanticipated yet nonaccidental good (because Nagel doesn’t want to appeal to chance), then it’s appropriate to go shopping around for intelligence, in the thing or in the system. If I purchase a sweater online and receive both the sweater and a ten dollar gift card, I assume that someone designed it that way. If the bacterium does what’s right for it and also thereby generates higher lifeforms, then someone designed it that way. So it’s understandable why atheist philosophers have been allergic to the language of final causation.

Regardless, this book is important. If Nagel is wrong, the book is still valuable: it offers a prime example of the best virtues of philosophical writing today, with few, if any, of its vices. His remarks on how philosophy works—or is supposed to work—should be required reading for all undergraduates (e.g., the first paragraph on 127). If Nagel is right, then I imagine that those to come will look back on this book as a watershed moment in the history of philosophy, in which a widely read public figure proposed an alternative account of the universe that paved the way for future scientific discoveries.

Re: Nagel’s Cosmos: Teleology Without Intention?
March 02, 2015 07:44PM
Touches upon a lot of the ideas I've stumbling to clearly explain, will look into Nagel, thanks Tuk.
Re: Nagel’s Cosmos: Teleology Without Intention?
March 02, 2015 11:39PM
Found it! I remembered reading an oped in the NYTimes from Nagel about his book back when it first came out in which he more or less summarizes the ideas he details in his book. Here is that article:

This is a brief statement of positions defended more fully in my book “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False,” which was published by Oxford University Press last year. Since then the book has attracted a good deal of critical attention, which is not surprising, given the entrenchment of the world view that it attacks. It seemed useful to offer a short summary of the central argument.

The scientific revolution of the 17th century, which has given rise to such extraordinary progress in the understanding of nature, depended on a crucial limiting step at the start: It depended on subtracting from the physical world as an object of study everything mental – consciousness, meaning, intention or purpose. The physical sciences as they have developed since then describe, with the aid of mathematics, the elements of which the material universe is composed, and the laws governing their behavior in space and time.

We ourselves, as physical organisms, are part of that universe, composed of the same basic elements as everything else, and recent advances in molecular biology have greatly increased our understanding of the physical and chemical basis of life. Since our mental lives evidently depend on our existence as physical organisms, especially on the functioning of our central nervous systems, it seems natural to think that the physical sciences can in principle provide the basis for an explanation of the mental aspects of reality as well — that physics can aspire finally to be a theory of everything.

However, I believe this possibility is ruled out by the conditions that have defined the physical sciences from the beginning. The physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves as parts of the objective spatio-temporal order – our structure and behavior in space and time – but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view. There can be a purely physical description of the neurophysiological processes that give rise to an experience, and also of the physical behavior that is typically associated with it, but such a description, however complete, will leave out the subjective essence of the experience – how it is from the point of view of its subject — without which it would not be a conscious experience at all.

So the physical sciences, in spite of their extraordinary success in their own domain, necessarily leave an important aspect of nature unexplained. Further, since the mental arises through the development of animal organisms, the nature of those organisms cannot be fully understood through the physical sciences alone. Finally, since the long process of biological evolution is responsible for the existence of conscious organisms, and since a purely physical process cannot explain their existence, it follows that biological evolution must be more than just a physical process, and the theory of evolution, if it is to explain the existence of conscious life, must become more than just a physical theory.

This means that the scientific outlook, if it aspires to a more complete understanding of nature, must expand to include theories capable of explaining the appearance in the universe of mental phenomena and the subjective points of view in which they occur – theories of a different type from any we have seen so far.

There are two ways of resisting this conclusion, each of which has two versions. The first way is to deny that the mental is an irreducible aspect of reality, either (a) by holding that the mental can be identified with some aspect of the physical, such as patterns of behavior or patterns of neural activity, or (b) by denying that the mental is part of reality at all, being some kind of illusion (but then, illusion to whom?). The second way is to deny that the mental requires a scientific explanation through some new conception of the natural order, because either (c) we can regard it as a mere fluke or accident, an unexplained extra property of certain physical organisms – or else (d) we can believe that it has an explanation, but one that belongs not to science but to theology, in other words that mind has been added to the physical world in the course of evolution by divine intervention.

All four of these positions have their adherents. I believe the wide popularity among philosophers and scientists of (a), the outlook of psychophysical reductionism, is due not only to the great prestige of the physical sciences but to the feeling that this is the best defense against the dreaded (d), the theistic interventionist outlook. But someone who finds (a) and (b) self-evidently false and (c) completely implausible need not accept (d), because a scientific understanding of nature need not be limited to a physical theory of the objective spatio-temporal order. It makes sense to seek an expanded form of understanding that includes the mental but that is still scientific — i.e. still a theory of the immanent order of nature.

That seems to me the most likely solution. Even though the theistic outlook, in some versions, is consistent with the available scientific evidence, I don’t believe it, and am drawn instead to a naturalistic, though non-materialist, alternative. Mind, I suspect, is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy. I would add that even some theists might find this acceptable; since they could maintain that God is ultimately responsible for such an expanded natural order, as they believe he is for the laws of physics.

Thomas Nagel is University Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Law at New York University. He is the author of “Mortal Questions,” “The View from Nowhere,” “The Last Word” and other books.

Re: Nagel’s Cosmos: Teleology Without Intention?
March 03, 2015 01:35AM
He is an atheist who believes in ID. Silly. Kinda like tuk. No wonder he likes him, lol.

Reductionism has worked pretty well until now. There is good reason to expect that with future understanding we will find proof no silly IntelligentThing is responsible for or in any way purposefully directing our existence. This is just a fancy philosophy to try to rationalize some goddy thing into reality to explain what we still don't understand to impatient godists.
Sorry, only registered users may post in this forum.

Click here to login

Cookies Consent Policy & Privacy Statement. All Rights Reserved. SelectSmart® is a registered trademark. | Contact | Advertise on | This site is for sale!