Bats & the philosophers

Thomas Nagel’s latest work must have some merit: it has created a stir in the belfries. The book is, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. The author is the celebrated, John Rawls-trained, atheist and empiricist perfesser of philosophy and law at New York University.

I last checked in with Nagel some decades ago, in the days of “What is it like to be a bat?” — his bald philosophical paper of the ‘seventies, which argued that the question is deeply interesting. For after we have learnt every empirical thing that can be known about a bat, we still don’t know what it feels like. His paper was an attack on scientific reductionism, and must have been an early anticipation of his current large essay, in which he extends his attack to what we call “materialism” or “naturalism” at large. This invariably bestews an author in frankly Aristotelian pots of teleology (i.e. reasoning to final cause). For a universe consisting only of bona-fide stuff, evolving by bona-fide chance, and thus limiting itself strictly to efficient causes, would surely not bother with something so scandalously “inefficient” as consciousness.

The academic reviews of Nagel, from what I have seen in the electronic aether, are appropriately scandalized. The Neo-Darwinist Inquisition would hardly be worth its pay, if it did not promptly wax hysterical whenever a credentialled person drifts towards the shoals of Intelligent Design. This review in the Nation provides judge, jury, and summary conviction. These two in the Thrupenny Review provide some amusing sneers from the humanities gallery.

Nagel’s attack is dismissed as vague and amateur, since he has refused to buy into reductionist premisses to attack reductionism, and into naturalist premisses to attack naturalism. He stands further accused, by the Nation reviewer, of failing to abase himself in the presence of the high priests of empirical science. Can he not see that science gets results? Where is his Faith in Science? How dare he employ philosophical reasoning to an enterprise innocent of such dark things!

Now here is what we understand to be the Nagelian critique. A materialist or naturalist science should explain how things got the way they are, in terms that are ultimately plausible and likely. All the most obviously important results of the evolutionary process should be present and accounted for at the end of the day. And therefore, something as huge as consciousness needs explaining. Something so shriekingly volitional should not be presented as a kind of add-on or spin-off or side-effect or by-product of “sparks and drips at the synapses” (some Berkeley neuroscientist’s happy phrase).

Moreover, the “grey jelly” has an uncanny way, even in mere animals, of apprehending truths outside of itself. In the case of humans, 3 plus 5 equals 8 is astonishing: because it checks out with the universe; it emerges as an inescapable consequence of the “law of non-contradiction.” Math and logic are spooky like that, and so, as Nagel will apparently argue, are certain moral axioms. We may say that they “evolved” to assist us in survival; are “by-products of evolution”; but that doesn’t begin to explain e.g. “do as you would be done by.” This steps radically beyond what we required to deal with sabre-toothed tigers, into a realm of tautology (in the highest sense) that precedes (in the logical) any evolutionary explanation. If science means “knowledge,” as it formerly did, we will just have to deal with that bit, too.

This empirically-demonstrable fact of self-awareness, on the part of the universe in this location at least, is what lies under and behind the anthropic cosmological principle, towards which empirical science itself may be moving, on the strength of its unlikely discoveries. For we have a universe which, in no location, can ever be shown to neglect purpose. It does not merely spark and drip; it lays eggs.

Aristotle was not ahead of modern science in empirical research (how could he be, since that is cumulative?) but well ahead in his grasp that efficient cause does not complete the scientific transaction. Final cause may dance beyond our reach, but there it dances. Cheap parodies of teleological reasoning do not put it to rest: for if human beings had never asked “Why?” there would be no science. The Neo-Darwinians may try to arrest us at the boundary of efficient causation, but in the end their Berlin Wall will fall: for we have seen bright lights on the other side, and we want to go there.