Jeepers, I wonder if Professor Pinker even read Nagel's deeply engaging and closely reasoned book. Had he done so, he probably would have noticed a couple of "interesting points" raised there to which he could have responded in rebuttal. Instead, he takes an ad hominum meat-ax to Professor Nagel.... (This tells me Pinker is not a serious thinker, whatever else he may be.)
Pinker is professor of language, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology at MIT. Nagel is professor of philosophy at NYU. Note: Neither is a biologist or any other kind of natural scientist. Yet the former is a disciple of Neo-darwinist orthodoxy. The latter, a self-described atheist, is not.
Neo-darwinist theory has been spectacularly successful at the level of microbiology. But Nagel raises the issue: To what extent do empirical findings of microbiology extrapolate to the system at large, such as to give a "complete" description of the system in this case, the universe in purely naturalistic, or materialist, or physicalist terms? He is "almost certain" that Neo-darwinist theory cannot do this.
The obvious problems that Neo-darwinism tries to obviate is the origin of life and the emergence/evolution of mind. [Folks like Dawkins, Pinker, Dennett, et al., evidently think it's perfectly acceptable to obviate what one cannot explain.] Thus a "bigger picture" than the one that sees only physico/chemical reactions according to physical laws as fully explaining the biological and psychological dimensions of the universe is critically needed.
Here we enter into the terrain of scientific cosmology. [The physicists and mathematicians are already there. So far the ones reluctant to join this party tend to be the evolutionary biologists.... To me, they are the "bitter clingers" of a decaying doctrine that would prefer to be sucked into a black hole than to live to see the coming paradigm shift in science.]
Nagel picks at a few good scabs, bound to upset the "bitter-clingers" who put all their hopes in Darwin, and none at all in human common sense and experience not to mention Reason. (Darwin's theory is absolutely hapless to address where "reason" came from, or to explain what in Nature it can possibly refer to.)
Nagel first of all goes right after scientific reductionism:
Physico-chemical reductionism in biology is the orthodox view, and any resistance to it is regarded as not only scientifically but politically incorrect. But for a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works. The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes.... But it seems to me that, as it is usually presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense....Nagel suspects that reductionist materialist approaches to the understanding of nature, and particularly of biological nature, do not, and cannot rise to the explanatory challenge. As Nagel puts it, "my guiding conviction is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature."
The great advances in the physical and biological sciences were made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world. This has permitted a quantitative understanding of that world, expressed in timeless, mathematically formulated physical laws. But at some point it will be necessary to make a new start on a more comprehensive understanding that includes the mind. It seems inevitable that such an understanding will have a historical dimension as well as a timeless one. The idea that historical understanding is part of science has become familiar through the transformation of biology by evolutionary theory. But more recently, with the acceptance of the big bang, cosmology has become a historical science. Mind, as a development of life, must be included as the most recent stage of this long cosmological history, and its appearance, I believe, casts its shadow back over the entire process and the constituents and principles on which the process depends....
...[T]he coming into existence of the genetic code an arbitrary mapping of nucleotide sequences into amino acids, together with mechanisms that can read the code and carry out its instructions seems particularly resistant to being revealed as probable given physical laws alone. Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, p. 5 ff. [Italics added for emphasis.]
Plus then he adds insult to injury, by averring that teleology is implicit in biology. Teleology, that is Final Cause a/k/a purposes or goals operative in natural processes and in Nature as a Whole has been abolished by science since Francis Bacon. Yet, not only Nagel, but other noteworthy scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers, think it's time to bring teleology back into scientific respectability.
Pretty good for an atheist, huh???
A little later (p. 16), Nagel adds
Science is driven by the assumption that the world is intelligible. That is, the world in which we find ourselves, and about which experience gives us some information, can not only be described but understood. That assumption is behind every pursuit of knowledge, including pursuits that end in illusion. In the natural sciences as they have developed since the seventeenth century, the assumption of intelligibility has led to extraordinary discoveries, confirmed by prediction and experiments, of a hidden natural order that cannot be observed by human perception alone. Without the assumption of an intelligible underlying order, which long antedates the scientific revolution [no kidding!!! Go back to first-millennium B.C. Greece for the fundaments of this understanding], those discoveries could not have been made. [Ibid., itals added for emphasis.]Well, that's how Nagel basically gets the ball rolling in this fascinating book. Thus he tells us that Neo-darwinist theory is at least "incomplete." Also he will have no truck with devotees of Intelligent Design. (The idea of a "designer" seems to give him the willies. I gather if the "designer" were God, Nagel wouldn't trust him.) As for alternative cosmological theories that have the capacity of accounting for life and mind in Nature, he finds that monist, dualist, and emergent theories don't really cut it either.
He has his own modest proposal. But I won't tell you what it is. Rather, I urge you to read Nagel's book.
Whether or not you agree with his findings, you will learn a lot from an honest thinker who is genuinely in pursuit of the Truth of the universe, while still having a very strong desire for its ultimate explanation to be capable of being cast in purely "naturalist" terms.
dirtboy, thank you so much for posting this fine essay. It only just came to my attention today. Really Good Stuff!!!
I suspect the biologists presumed their invitees would follow the biologists' methodology of fitting new observations into established theory (dogma, in effect) - even if it must be kluged to fit. But to physicists science is all about the theory. And mathematicians require proof, not dogma.
As H.H. Pattee said:
“Nagel: The great advances in the physical and biological sciences were made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world. “
Spirited: Nagel does not want the living, personal God in Three Persons to exist. To paraphrase his own words, “I don’t want the world to be this way.” In this light we can understand why he “fudged the truth” with his claim that great advances in science were made possible by excluding mind from the physical world.
The truth is that scientific advances were made when Christian theism de-divinized the cosmos with its’ teaching that though the living God upholds the cosmos and all life and mind He is not “within” the cosmos but outside of it. He is outside of the space time dimension, thus neither any part of the cosmos (i.e., earth is not the divine, sacred Gaia) nor man himself shares His divine substance as Hermetic science teaches.
betty: Pinker is professor of language, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology at MIT
Spirited: In terms of worldview, Pinker is a modern Gnostikoi of the occult Free Masonic order (a modern Mystery Religion) with its’ taproot in the materialism of ancient Egypt. This view holds that all that exists is matter and energy (the serpent power of the one substance, Herme’s Universal Life, the Great Dragon). “Modern” occult Free Masons reframe energy in terms of Lucifer’s seething energies.
Simply put, Mystery Religion adepts are those who have mastered the energies, hence they are the Gnostikoi who “Know” the deeper things that the masses (beast-men) do not and cannot “Know.” In this sense Pinker is a Gnostikoi who “Knows” that “mind” does not exist with respect to the materialized masses but is reserved to higher adepts such as himself.
C.S. Lewis is one of the few thinkers who knew that “modern science” and it’s primary doctrine “evolution” emerged out of ancient occult science. He expounds this subject in “That Hideous Strength.”
Since the “death of God,” modern science has been returning to it’s occult parent.