Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Freaked-Out Neo-Darwinists

Figurines, in a store in Columbus, Ohio

Many years ago I read NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel's famous essay "What Is it Like to Be a Bat?" This is one of the great philosophical essays every student interested in the brain-mind relationship has to read. Nagel's reasoning is that there is something that is it is like to be a bat, and that something cannot be explicated physically. We have here the "hard problem of consciousness," viz., the matter of first person subjective experience. Here Nagel suggests that the subjective aspect of the mind may never be sufficiently accounted for by the methods of objective science.

Nagel earned great fame from that essay, and has been applauded as one of our most brilliant philosophical thinkers.

So it was that the philosophical and scientific world (part of it, at least) became recently scandalized by Nagel's newest book: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. I just picked it up and have begun to read it. In it Nagel, who is an atheist, finds philosophical materialism severely wanting when it comes to explanatory power. Now this is interesting because, on atheism, philosophical materialism seems to be the logical implication. Nagel writes: "A true appreciation of the difficulty of the [mind-body] problem must eventually change our conception of the place of the physical sciences in describing the natural order." (Kindle Locations 51 - 52). 

Now note this: "Scientists are well aware of how much they don’t know, but this is a different kind of problem— not just of acknowledging the limits of what is actually understood but of trying to recognize what can and cannot in principle be understood by certain existing methods." (Kindle Locations 58-60). In other words, the Neo-Darwinian framework cannot, in principle, solve the mind-body problem. This suggestion is currently freaking out Neo-Darwinians (note: Neo-Darwinians, not Darwinians, since Darwin himself has been long-surpassed and is mostly interesting as an historical figure). 

I just pulled up and read a nice essay explaining Neo-Darwinian freaked-outness: "The Heretic," by Andrew Ferguson. Check it out to meet Nagel the intellectual renegade.