I am reminded of the Marx Brothers line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” Dennett asks us to turn our backs on what is glaringly obvious—that in consciousness we are immediately aware of real subjective experiences of color, flavor, sound, touch, etc. that cannot be fully described in neural terms even though they have a neural cause (or perhaps have neural as well as experiential aspects). And he asks us to do this because the reality of such phenomena is incompatible with the scientific materialism that in his view sets the outer bounds of reality. He is, in Aristotle’s words, “maintaining a thesis at all costs.”
That's right. When a line of reasoning issues in an absurdity such as the absurdity that consciousness and its deliverances are illusions, then what you have is a reductio ad absurdum of one or more of the premises with which the reasoning began. Dennett assumes physicalism and that everything can be explained in physical terms. This leads to absurdity. But Dennett, blinded by his own brilliance -- don't forget, he counts himself one of the 'brights' -- bites the bullet. He'd rather break his teeth than examine his assumptions.
Another thing struck me. Dennett makes much of Wilfrid Sellars' distinction between the manifest and scientific images. 'Image' is not quite the right word. An image is someone's image. But whose image is the scientific image? Who is its subject? It is arguably our image no less than the manifest image. Nagel quotes Dennett as saying of the manifest image: "It’s the world according to us." But the same, or something very similar, is true of the scientific image: it's the world in itself according to us. Talk of molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks, and strings is our talk just as much as talk of colors and plants and animals and haircuts and home runs.
The world of physics is the world as it is in itself according to us. Arguably, the 'according to us' gets the upper hand over the 'in itself' relativizing what comes within the former's scope much like Kant's transcendental prefix, Ich denke. Das 'ich denke' muss alle meine Vorstellungen begleiten koennen . . . . "The ''I think' must be able to accompany all my representations." (KdrV, B 131-2)
Arguably, the world of physics is a mind-involving construct arrived at by excluding the mental and abstracting away from the first-person point of view and the life world it reveals. I am alluding to an idealist approach to the problem of integrating the first- and third-person points of view. It has its own problems. But why is it inferior to a view like Dennett's which eliminates as illusory obvious data that are plainly not illusory?
Time was when absolute idealism was the default position in philosophy. Think back to the days of Bradley and Bosanquet. But reaction set in, times have changed, and the Zeitgeist is now against the privileging of Mind and for the apotheosis of Matter. (But again, matter as construed by us. Arguably, the scientific realist reifies theoretical constructs that we create and employ to make sense of experience.) Because idealism is out of vogue, the best and brightest are not drawn to its defense, and the brilliant few it attracts are too few to make much headway against the prevailing winds.
Now I'll tell you what I really think. The problem of integrating the first- and third-person points of view is genuine and perhaps the deepest of all philosophical problems. But it is insoluble by us. If it does have a solution, however, it certainly won't be anything like Dennett's.
Although Dennett's positive theory is worthless, his excesses are extremely useful in helping us see just how deep and many-sided and intractable the problem is.
This is worth reproducing; I came to essentially the same conclusion (emphasis added):
The viciousness with which this book [Mind and Cosmos] was received is, quite frankly, astonishing. I can understand why scientists don't like it; they're wary of philosophers trespassing on their terrain. But philosophers? What is philosophy except (1) the careful analysis of alternatives (i.e., logical possibilities), (2) the questioning of dogma, and (3) the patient distinguishing between what is known and what is not known (or known not to be) in a given area of human inquiry? Nagel's book is smack dab in the Socratic tradition. Socrates himself would admire it. That Nagel, a distinguished philosopher who has made important contributions to many branches of the discipline, is vilified by his fellow philosophers (I use the term loosely for what are little more than academic thugs) shows how thoroughly politicized philosophy has become. I find it difficult to read any philosophy after, say, 1980, when political correctness, scientism, and dogmatic atheism took hold in academia. Philosophy has become a handmaiden to political progressivism, science, and atheism. Nagel's "mistake" is to think that philosophy is an autonomous discipline. I fully expect that, 100 years from now, philosophers will look back on this era as the era of hacks, charlatans, and thugs. Philosophy is too important to be given over to such creeps.
One such creepy thug is this corpulent apparatchik of political correctness:
Edward Feser, Man is Wolff to Man. I was going to write this post, but Ed beat me to it. Ed beats down the superannuated Wolff for boarding the bandwagon of benighted bashers of Nagel. These lefties just can't stand Nagel even though he is a naturalist, an atheist, and a liberal. Why? Because he is not an extremist like they are. Because he could conceivably be interpreted by someone as giving aid and comfort to the enemy: the theists. For not toeing the party line. For thinking for himself. For being the Real Thing and not a leftist ideologue. It is sad to see professional philosophy ideologized like this.
By the way, I admire the hell out of Kirsten Powers, even though she's a Dem (why Lord, why?): she has beauty, brains, and (the female equivalent of) balls. And she puts up goodnaturedly with the sometimes obnoxious Bill O'Reilly. But I admire the hell out of him as well. That leftists despise a moderate such as him shows what contemptible extremists they are.
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.
Nagel, of course, rejects each of (a)-(d).
My overview of Nagel's book is here. More detailed posts on Nagel are in the aptly denominated Nagel category.
The comments on Nagel's piece are mostly garbage. There is something offensive about allowing any birdbrain to leave his droppings on an essay by one of our best philosophers.
The best arguments against an open combox are the contents of one.
The problem with Alvin Plantinga’s defense of theism is a simple but wholly vitiating one [Where the Conflict Really Lies, reviewed by Thomas Nagel in “A Philosopher Defends Religion,” NYR, September 27, 2012]. It is that it rests on the fallacy of informal logic known as petitio principii. Plantinga wishes to claim that we can know there is a deity because the deity has provided us with a cognitive modality, which Plantinga calls “a sensus divinitatis,” or sense of the divine, by which we detect its existence. So, we know there is a god because that god arranges matters so that we know there is a god. The circularity is perfect, and perfectly fallacious. I can claim with equal cogency that I know there are goblins in my garden because they provide me with a goblin-sensing faculty of mind…and so for anything else whatever that we would antecedently like to exist.
Plantinga assumes that everyone has a sensus divinitatis but in some of us it is faulty. The name of this fault is “rationality.”
Anthony Grayling’s charge of circularity would be right if Plantinga offered the sensus divinitatis as evidence for the existence of God, but he does not. He says merely that belief in God is knowledge if it is in fact caused by God in this way, much as perceptual belief in the external physical world is knowledge if it is in fact caused by the external world in the appropriate way. It would be just as circular to try to prove the existence of the external world by appealing to perception as it would be to try to prove the existence of God by appealing to the sensus divinitatis. But Plantinga holds that it is nevertheless reasonable to hold either type of belief in this basic way, without further proof. I assume he would deny that anyone has, or thinks he has, a basic, unmediated belief in goblins.
Clearly, Grayling is not at the level of Plantinga and Nagel. He is more of a New Atheist ideologue and polemicist than a genuine philosopher. This is shown by the sophomoric zeal with which he attempts to pin an elementary informal fallacy on Plantinga, one that "wholly vitiates" his defense of theism. It takes chutzpah and lack of respect for a formidable opponent to think one can blow him out of the water in this way. This is typical cyberpunk behavior. The punks hurl fallacy labels at each other: fallacy of composition! Hypostatization! Begging the question!
And then there is the polemical swipe Grayling takes at the end of his letter. Polemics has its place, but not in philosophy.
According to David Hume, "Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent." (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion) I've long believed Hume to be right about this. I would put it this way, trading Latin for plain Anglo-Saxon: Our minds are necessarily such that, no matter what we think of as existing, we can just as easily think of as not existing. This includes God. Now God, to be divine, must be a necessary being, indeed a necessary concretum. (God cannot be an abstract entity.) Therefore, even a necessary being such as God is conceivable or thinkable as nonexistent.
Try it for yourself. Think of God together with all his omni-attributes and then think of God as not existing. Our atheist pals have no trouble on this score. The nonexistence of God is thinkable without logical contradiction.*
Note the ambiguity of 'conceivable.' It could mean thinkable, or it could mean thinkable without (internal) logical contradiction. Round squares are conceivable in the first sense but not in the second. If round squares were in no sense conceivable, how could we think about them and pronounce them broadly logically impossible? Think about it!
Now try the experiment with an abstract necessary being such as the number 7 or the proposition *7 is prime.* Nominalists have no trouble conceiving the nonexistence of such Platonica, and surely we who are not nominalists can understand their point of view. In short, absolutely everything can be thought of, without logical contradiction, as not existing.
Humius vindicatus est.
I now define the sense of contingency as the sense that everything is thinkable without logical contradiction as nonexistent. I claim that this sense is essential to the type of mind we have. I also claim that the sense of contingency does not entail that everything is modally contingent, i.e., existent in some but not all metaphysically (broadly logically) possible worlds. So from the mere fact that I can think the nonexistence of God without logical contradiction, it does not follow that God is a contingent being. I further claim that we have a hard-to-resist tendency to conflate illicitly the sense of contingency (precisely as I have just defined it) with genuine modal contingency.
So, if someone argues a contingentia mundi to God as causa prima, he can expect the knee-jerk response: what caused God? Behind that reflexive question is the sense of contingency: if the universe is contingent (because conceivably nonexistent) and needs a cause, then so is anything posited as first cause. What then caused the First Cause? If nothing caused it, the knee-jerk responder continues, then it just exists as a matter of brute fact; and if we can accept brute-factuality at the level of the First Cause, then we can accept it at the level of the universe and be done with this nonsense. We can say, with Russell, that the universe just exists and that's all.
My point is that it is the sense of contingency, together with the illicit conflation just mentioned, that fuels the knee-jerk response to the argument to a causa prima.
The sense of absurdity as described by Thomas Nagel is analogous to the sense of contingency, or so I claim. The sense that our lives are Nagel-absurd does not entail that they are objectively absurd. And yet we are necessarily such that we cannot avoid the sense of Nagel-absurdity. About absolutely everything we can ask: what is the purpose of it? What is it good for? What is the point of it? The subjectively serious, under the aspect of eternity, viewed wth detachment from nowhere, comes to appear objectively gratuitous. This holds for every context of meaning, no matter how wide, including the ultimate context. Suppose the ultimate context is eternal fellowship with God. Reflecting on it from our present perspective, viewing it from outside, we can ask what the point of it would be, just as we can ask what caused God.
The classical answer to 'What caused God?' is that God is a necessary being. He has no external cause or explanation, but his existence is not a brute fact either. God is self-existent or self-grounding or self-explanatory. Nagel has trouble with this idea: "But it's very hard to understand how there could be such a thing." (WDIAM, 99) Why does our man have trouble? Because there is nothing that could put a stop to our explanation-seeking 'Why?' questions. In a sense he is right. The structure of our finite discursive intellects makes it impossible to stop definitively, makes it impossible to have self-evident, question-squelching, positive insight into the absolute metaphysical necessity of God's existence in the way have self-evident positive insight into the impossibility of round squares or the necessity of colors being extended. The best we can do is see the failure of entailment from 'Everything is conceivably nonexistent' to 'Everything is modally contingent.'
Just as Nagel cannot suppress the question 'What explains God?,' he cannot suppress the question 'What is the point of God?' or 'What is the point of fulfilling God's purpose for our lives?' Nagel cannot see how there could be something that gives point to everything else by encompassing it, but has no external point itself. He cannot see how God can be self-purposing, i.e., without external purpose but also not purposeless. Nagel thinks that if the point of our lives is supplied by a pointless God, and a pointless God is acceptable, then we ought to find pointless lives acceptable.
Nagel can't see how the ultimate point could be God or eternal life with God. "Something whose point cannot be questioned from outside because there is no outside?" (100) Given the very structure of our embodied awareness, there is always the possibility of the 'outside view' which then collides with the situated subjective 'inside view.' It is this unavoidable duality within finite embodied consciousness, and essential to it, that makes it impossible for Nagel to accept a self-purposing, self-significant, self-intelligible ultimate context.
So for Nagel objective meaninglessness is the last word. For me it is not: our lives are ultimately and objectively meaningful. But Nagel has a point: we cannot, given the present configuration of finite, discursive, embodied awareness, truly understand with positive insight God's metaphysical necessity or how there could be an ultimate context of existential meaning that is self-grounding axiologically, teleologically, and ontologically.
So I suggest that ultimate felicity and ultimate meaningfulness can be had only by a transfiguration and transformation of our 'present' type of finite, discursive consciousness with its built-in duality of the subjective and the objective.
But I can only gesture in the direction of that Transfiguration. I cannot present it to you while we inhabit the discursive plane. All I can do is point to the Transdiscursive, and motivate the pointing by exfoliating the antinomies and aporiai that remain insoluble this side of the Great Divide.
*One way to oppose this is via the Anderson-Welty argument lately examined. If the exsistence of God is the ultimate presupposition of the laws of logic, then all reasoning, whether valid or invalid, to God or away from God or neither, and all considerations anent logical possibility, necessity, impossibility, contradiction and the like presuppose the existence of God.
A second way of opposition was tread by me in my A Paradigm Theory of Existence.
Thomas Nagel suggests as much at the end of Chapter 10, "The Meaning of Life," of his little introductory text, What Does It All Mean? (Oxford UP, 1987):
If life is not real, life is not earnest, and the grave is its goal, perhaps it's ridiculous to take ourselves so seriously. On the other hand, if we can't help taking ourselves so seriously, perhaps we just have to put up with being ridiculous. Life may be not only meaningless, but absurd. (101)
Did you catch the allusion to Longfellow? It is to the second stanza of "A Psalm of LIfe":
Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal; Dust thou are, to dust thou returnest, Was not spoken of the soul.
Now one might naturally think that life is meaningless if and only if life is absurd, that in this context 'meaningless' and 'absurd' are equivalent expressions. The Nagel quotation, however, suggests that the equivalence fails. While an absurd life is a meaningless life, a meaningless life needn't be absurd.
But how? How can a life be meaningless but not absurd?
Well, suppose your life (and everyone's life) is objectively meaningless, objectively without point or purpose. That does not translate into the "philosophical sense of absurdity" (phrase from Nagel's 1971 article) unless one takes one's life seriously. To take one's life seriously, Nagel suggests, is to aim at more than comfort and survival. It is to dedicate oneself to something important, "not just important to you, but important in some larger sense: important, period." (101) The problem, as we have seen from earlier discussions, is that seriousness collides with the view from nowhere. Viewing my life from the outside tends to drain it of seriousness. The sense of absurdity arises when "the incurable tendency to take ourselves seriously" comes into conflict with the view "from the outside." The serious appears gratuitous under the aspect of eternity.
To avoid absurdity, then, we must stop taking our lives seriously. Nagel's message, at least in his little 1987 text, seems to be that our lives are objectively meaningless whether or not we take ourselves seriously. If we take ourselves seriously, then our lives are both meaningless and absurd. If we stop taking our lives seriously, then our lives will be meaningless but not absurd.
We ought to distinguish two problems:
P1. How are we to deal with the objective meaninglessness of human existence?
P2. How are we to deal with the absurdity of human existence?
Nagel seems to be saying that we solve the first problem by simply accepting objective meaninglessness, and that we solve the second by taking short views and not worrying about the point or pointlessness of one's life as a whole: "The trick is to keep your eye's on what's in front of you, and allow justifications to come to an end within your life, and inside the lives of others to whom you are connected." (100)
Objective meaninglessness is not up to us: it is a given. Absurdity, which for Nagel is indistinguishable from the sense of absurdity, is up to us: we can mitigate it by taking short views even if we cannot entirely eliminate it.
So absurdity is not much of a problem for Nagel. It certainly does not call for suicide or for existentialist heroics of the Camusian sort whereby man shakes his fist in defiance at the unintelligible and heartless universe. Irony, Nagel tells us, is the proper response.
But is human existence objectively absurd? Problem (P1) above presupposes that it is. But is it? Nagel gives an argument in WDIAM that we ought to examine. Please note that he is is arguing, not from the sense of absurdity as he describes it, but from objective considerations. Note also that his argument seems to contradict his rejection of the "chains of justification" argument he examines near the beginning of the 1971 article. (MQ, p. 12) The WDIAM argument seems to be the following.
1. If x has meaning, then x is a proper part of a whole within which it has its meaning. Thus the particular activities and projects of my life have their existential meaning within the whole of my life. Therefore
2. My life as a whole has meaning only if there is a wider whole within which my life as a whole has meaning. Such a wider context might be my family, my profession, a political movement.
3. But each such wider context can be viewed from outside and questioned as to its meaning. This includes the ultimate context if there is one, for example, God's plan for humanity. Therefore
4. The ultimate context, if there is one, must be meaningless. This is because nothing has meaning apart from a context, and no context is immune from questioning as to its point or purpose. Therefore
5. Since the ultimate context must be meaningless, my life as a whole must be ultimately meaningless, whatever proximate meaning it may have for my family, my profession, the party, etc.
By way of illustration, consider the catechism answer to the question of the purpose of human existence: Our purpose is to love and serve God in this world and be happy with him forever in the next. In Thomistic terms, the purpose of life is to achieve the visio beata, the Beatific Vision.
Now should anyone who accepts this Thomistic answer be troubled by Nagel's argument? He needn't be. For the argument rests on a questionable assumption, namely, that no context is the source of its own meaningfulness. Now that is true of all sub-ultimate contexts, but why should it be true of the ultimate context?
What is the point of the Beatific Vision? That is like asking, What caused God? God is causa sui, a necessary being. He is self-existent. Similarly, the Beatific Vision is self-intelligible, self-purposive, self-significant. The buck stops there.
Of course, given the nature of our consciousness with its in-built duality of subjective and objective modes of consideration, we can question the point of the BV (or the VB if you prefer). But we have no reason to think that this questioning by us reveals anything objective about the VB. Similarly, one can question whether God exists and why God exists, but that does not show that there is a real distinction in him between essence and existence.
The fact that I can think of God as nonexistent does not show that God is not a necessary being. The fact that I can wonder about the point of the ultimate context does not show that the ultimate context is without point, that it is not self-intelligible, self-purposive, and self-significant.
The sense of the absurd will always be with us in this life. But the sense of the absurd does not entail objective or absolute absurdity. Life can be absurd without being meaningless, just as it can be meaningless without being absurd.
In his essay "The Absurd," Thomas Nagel maintains that "the philosophical sense of absurdity" arises from "the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt." (13) But then, on the next page, Nagel shifts from the sense of the absurd to the absurd itself, telling us that "what makes life absurd" is the collision of "the two inescapable viewpoints," namely, the situated POV from which we live straighforwardly, immersed in our projects and taking them in deadly earnest, and the transcendental POV from which we coolly comtemplate our lives and everything else sub specie aeternitatis.
Nagel's question concerns the 'absurdity-maker.' What is it that makes our lives absurd if they are absurd? He begins his essay by dismissing three or so objective grounds of absurdity, among them, life's brevity and the 'size' argument: we are so tiny, the universe so vast. (I discuss a particularly mephitic variant of this latter argument by Lawrence Krauss here.) Nagel seeks and finds a purely subjective source of our absurdity: the collision within us of two points of view each of which is essential to our being the embodied consciousnesses we are.
Suppose we grant that our lives must appear absurd when we reflect upon them from on high, 'under the aspect of eternity.' Does it follow that they are absurd? What appears to be the case, and what cannot fail to appear to be the case for beings of our (present)constitution, might still not be the case.
It seems we can go two ways. We can say: the sense of the absurd just is the absurd. (I noted that Nagel shifts from the first to the second between pp. 13-14.) Or we can say that the sense of the absurd reveals the absurd. If the latter, then my life is absurd whether or not I reflect on it sub specie aeternitatis. If the former, my life is absurd only when I so reflect. It seems we ought to distinguish between a weak and a strong thesis:
Weak Absurdity Thesis: The essential structure of embodied consciousness as we find it in our own case entails that our lives, when we reflect on them, must appear absurd, hence without objective meaning/purpose, whether or not in reality they are bereft of objective meaning/purpose.
Strong Absurdity Thesis: The necessary appearance of absurdity (when and so long as we reflect) just is the absurdity of human existence. (Analogy: the percipi of felt pain = its esse.) The sense of the absurd constitutes the absurd. It does not reveal it. We generate our absurdity simply by being what we must be and exercising the powers that we have. Absurdity is essential to our embodied consciousness. Our lives are objectively absurd, even though this absurdity is grounded in the nature of our subjectivity.
If the Weak Thesis is correct, then the problem of the absurd can be solved by refusing to take long views. On the Weak Thesis, it is up to us whether life is absurd since the absurd just is the sense of the absurd and the sense of the absurd can be avoided by freely abstaining from occupying the transcendental standpoint. It would then seem reasonable to take the following line:
For all we know, life has an objective meaning. Let's leave that to God or the nature of things. We shall live as if it is true while avoiding the sometimes paralyzing doubts that accrue from taking long views. We shall focus on foreground concerns, live our lives with zest and committment, taking seriously what does appear serious from our situated perspectives, and view the ultimate solution to the cosmic riddles as above our paygrade.
We might call this stance 'ostrich anti-absurdism.' I am pretty sure that this is not what Nagel is advocating. I read him as pushing the Strong Thesis.
The Weak Thesis, however, is much more plausible. How does Nagel know that the sense of absurdity is veridical? How does he exclude the possibility that, while our lives must appear absurd when we reflect, they are not in reality absurd?
Maybe your mother was right when she said, "You think too much. Put down those books and go outside and play."
I have been re-reading Thomas Nagel's seminal paper, "The Absurd," which originally appeared in The Journal of Philosophy, October 1971, and is collected in Nagel's Mortal Questions (Cambridge UP, 1979, 11-23.) Damn, but it is good. Nagel is one of our best philosophers. He's the real thing.
Nagel's central contention is that human existence is essentially absurd. Thus the absurdity of our predicament is not in any way accidental or contingent or due to some remediable (by God or man) disproportion or 'disconnect' between the demands of the human heart and mind for meaning and intelligibility, on the one hand, and the world's 'indifference' to our concerns, on the other. In this regard Nagel's position is far more radical than Camus' as the latter presents it in The Myth of Sisyphus. For Camus, something is dreadfully wrong: the world ought to meet our demands for meaning and intelligibility but it doesn't. For Camus, absurdity is rooted in the discrepancy between demand and satisfaction, a demand that in some way ought to be satisfied and therefore in some sense could be satisfied. (The 'ought' in question is non-agential; here is some discussion of such oughts.)
Camus protests that things are not the way they are supposed to be, but they are, alas, the way they are, and so all we can do is shake our fists at the universe in defiance. Nagel's posture is less heroic and more ironic.
For Nagel there is no non-agential ought to have been otherwise or could have been otherwise with respect to the meaning of human existence: our lives are necessarily absurd because there is in us a conflict that is unavoidable, a conflict between our limited, perspectival, situated, individual points of view and the transcendental point of view from which we observe ourselves and everything else sub specie aeternitatis. The general and philosophical sense of absurdity arises when these two points of view come into conflict. Nagel speaks of "the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpretual possibility of regarding everything about which which we are serious as arbitrary or open to doubt." (13)
Immersed as I am in in my quotidian toilings and moilings, I take my life and its projects with utmost seriousness. For example, the other day I went back into my archives to correct a minor mistake I had made in a post from years ago. But while I was very concerned to make this correction and make it right, I was also aware of the 'absurdity' of being worried about such a bagatelle. Who cares? As transcendental spectator even I don't much care. It is easy to detach oneself in thought from one's projects and purposes and very life and see them as arbitrary, contingent, and without objective meaning or purpose or significance. What matters greatly from our situated perspectives can seem to matter not at all when we ascend to the transcendental perspective. But of course I am not just a transcendental spectator of "all time and existence" (Plato, Republic) but also this here measly chunk of animated aging flesh with a very personal history and fate and a reputation to maintain.
It is most marvellously true that I am a conscious and self-conscious being, projective of plans and purposes, sensitive to reasons as opposed to causes, and alive to the full range of the normative; but I am also an embodied conscious and self-conscious being with all that that entails: I can be crushed, blown apart, invaded by microorganisms, . . . . Human existence cannot be reduced to the existence of specimens of a highly evolved zoological species, but I am a specimen of such a species. Thus when we ask about the meaning of life we are really asking about the meaning of embodied consciousness. I believe this is a very important point. For it implies that the question cannot be addressed in a a wholly objectifying manner.
As I read him, Nagel is telling us that the root of absurdity is in us as embodied consciousnesses, not in the world or in any disproportion between us and the world. It is an ineradicable root. Both POVs are available to us -- and we must avail ourselves of both if we are to live fully human lives -- but they are necessarily in conflict. Or so it seems. If I am to live my life with zest and passion and commitment, then I cannot live the detached life of the transcendental ego who merely observes while his physical vehicle negotiates the twists and turns of this gnarly world. (This is a deep and complicated theme requiring much more discussion.) Borrowing some Heideggerian jargon we can say that for Nagel the sense of the absurd is constitutive of human Dasein. To be a fully awake human being, one who avails himself of both POVs, is to live with the sense of the absurd. The only way to escape our absurd predicament would be by causing the cessation of embodiment (suicide) or by somehow-- via meditation perhaps-- emptying the 'I' out into something pre- or non-egoic.
I think it is important to point out that for Nagel and in truth the absurd exists only as the sense of the absurd. This is another way of saying that the absurdity of the human predicament is not a merely objective fact if it is a fact: it involves consciousness/self-consciousness.
Is the absurdity of human existence a problem to be solved? It cannot be a problem that we can solve since it arises necessarily from the collision of the two POVs both of which are essential to being human. If the problem arises for a person, then that person cannot both solve the problem and continue to exist. (This is not to say that the problem must arise for every person since not everyone exercises his capacity to reflect on matters under the aspect of eternity.) Nor is absurdity a predicament. To call a state of affairs a predicament is to suggest the possibility of extrication. But there is no escape from absurdity. So it is neither a problem nor a predicament. What is called for is not the defiant posturing of an Algerian existentialist but irony: "If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair." (23)
As for Peter Lupu, he seems to be maintaining the exact opposite of what Nagel maintains. Peter's thought seems to be that the meaning of an individual life is constituted by the power to reflect. Every agent of a life has this power essentially even if not all choose to exercise it. Meaning is therefore not bestowed by the agent upon himself or by something or someone outside the agent such as God. Existential meaning inheres in the agent's power to reflect on his life, his values, desires, and purposes. For Lupu, meaning is not subjective . Nor is it externally objective, imposed from without. Every life is meaningful just in virtue of the agent's power to reflect.
I questioned whether existential meaning could be both objective and subjectively appropriable by all. Lupu thinks he can answer this by saying that meaning is objective albeit internally objective in virtue of every agent's having essentially the power to reflect; but meaning is also subjectively appropriable by each agent if he chooses to actualize his power to reflect. Here again is my aporetic tetrad:
A. If life has a meaning, then it cannot be subjective.
B. The meaning of life must be subjectively appropriable by all.
C. There is no meaning that is both nonsubjective and subjectively appropriable by all.
D. Life has a meaning.
Lupu solves my tetrad by rejecting (C) while accepting the remaining limbs. Nagel, I would guess, would solve the tetrad by rejecting (D) while accepting the other limbs.
There are several questions I need to pose to Lupu, but for now let me just pose a Nagelian question/objection. Nagel is surely on to something when he underscores the power of reflection to undermine the seriousness of our projects and make them appear arbitrary, contingent, and dubious. When this power is exercised it collides with our tendency toward straighforward unreflective living under the guidance of taken-for-granted norms and values imbibed uncritically from the circumambient culture. How can Lupu accommodate Nagel's point? Is it not more plausible to hold that it is absurdity, not meaning, that is the upshot of reflection?
4. The trouble with Stove is that he is a positivist, an anti-philosopher, someone with no inkling of what philosophy is about. He is very intelligent in a superficial sort of way, witty, erudite, a pleasure to read, and I am sure it would have been great fun to have a beer with him. But he is what I call a philosophistine. A philistine is someone with no appreciation of the fine arts; a philosophistine is one with no appreciation of philosophy. People like Stove and Paul Edwards and Rudolf Carnap just lack the faculty for philosophy, a faculty that is distinct from logical acumen.
5. My tone is harsh. What justifies it? The even harsher tone this two-bit positivist assumes in discussing great philosophers who will be read long after he is forgotten, great philosophers he must misunderstand because he cannot attain their level.
The notion that Stove was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century is risible.
It puzzles me why conservatives as opposed to libertarians should so admire this anti-metaphysical religion-basher. You don't have to be a theist to be a conservative, but a conservative who doesn't respect religion is no conservative at all. Here is what R. J. Stove says about his father:
Diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and convinced beyond all reason that his announcement of this diagnosis to Mum had brought about her stroke, Dad simply unraveled. So, to a lesser extent, did those watching him.
All Dad's elaborate atheist religion, with its sacred texts, its martyrs, its church militant; all his ostentatious tough- mindedness; all his intellectual machinery; all these things turned to dust. Convinced for decades of his stoicism, he now unwittingly demonstrated the truth of Clive James's cruel remark: "we would like to think we are stoic...but would prefer a version that didn't hurt."
Already an alcoholic, he now made a regular practice of threatening violence to himself and others. In hospital he wept like a child (I had never before seen him weep). He denounced the nurses for their insufficient knowledge of Socrates and Descartes. From time to time he wandered around the ward naked, in the pit of confused despair. The last time I visited him I found him, to my complete amazement, reading a small bedside Gideon Bible. I voiced surprise at this. He fixed on me the largest, most protuberant, most frightened, and most frightening pair of eyes I have ever seen: "I'll try anything now."
(Years later, I discovered—and was absolutely pole-axed by —the following passage in Bernard Shaw's Too True To Be Good, in which an old pagan, very obviously speaking for Shaw himself, sums up what I am convinced was Dad's attitude near the end. The passage runs: "The science to which I pinned my faith is bankrupt. Its counsels, which should have established the millennium, led, instead, directly to the suicide of Europe. I believed them once. In their name I helped to destroy the faith of millions of worshipers in the temples of a thousand creeds. And now look at me and witness the great tragedy of an atheist who has lost his faith.")
Eventually, through that gift for eloquence which seldom entirely deserted him, Dad convinced a psychiatrist that he should be released from the enforced hospital confinement which he had needed to endure ever since his threats had caused him to be scheduled. The psychiatrist defied the relevant magistrate's orders, and released my father.
Within twenty-four hours Dad had hanged himself in his own garden.
This was in June 1994. I cannot hope to convey the horror of this event. It dealt a mortal blow to the whole atheistic house of cards which constituted my own outlook.
There is charm to reading a philosopher who confesses to finding things bewildering. But I regret the appearance of this book. It will only bring comfort to creationists and fans of “intelligent design”, who will not be too bothered about the difference between their divine architect and Nagel’s natural providence. It will give ammunition to those triumphalist scientists who pronounce that philosophy is best pensioned off. If there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index [of prohibited books].
The problem with the book, Blackburn states at the beginning of his piece, is that
. . . only a tiny proportion of its informed readers will find it anything other than profoundly wrong-headed. For, as the title suggests, Nagel’s central idea is that there are things that science, as it is presently conceived, cannot possibly explain.
Blackburn doesn't explicitly say that there ought to be a "philosophical Vatican," and an index of prohibited books but he seems to be open to the deeply unphilosophical idea of censoring views that are "profoundly wrong-headed." And why should such views be kept from impressionable minds? Because they might lead them astray into doctrinal error. For even though Nagel explicitly rejects God and divine providence, untutored intellects might confuse Nagel's teleological suggestion with divine providence.
Nagel's great sin, you see, is to point out the rather obvious problems with reductive materialism as he calls it. This is intolerable to the scientistic ideologues since any criticism of the reigning orthodoxy, no matter how well-founded, gives aid and comfort to the enemy, theism -- and this despite the fact that Nagel's approach is naturalistic and rejective of theism!
So what Nagel explicitly says doesn't matter. His failing to toe the party line makes him an enemy as bad as theists such as Alvin Plantinga. (If Nagel's book is to be kept under lock and key, one can only wonder at the prophylactic measures necessary to keep infection from leaking out of Plantinga's tomes.)
Blackburn betrays himself as nothing but an ideologue in the above article. For this is the way ideologues operate. Never criticize your own, your fellow naturalists in this case. Never concede anything to your opponents. Never hesitate, admit doubt or puzzlement. Keep your eyes on the prize. Winning alone is what counts. Never follow an argument where it leads if it leads away from the party line.
Treat the opponent's ideas with ridicule and contumely. For example, Blackburn refers to consciousness as a purple haze to be dispelled. ('Purple haze' a double allusion, to the Hendrix number and to a book by Joe Levine on the explanatory gap.)
Andrew Ferguson writes on the the explosion of hostility toward Thomas Nagel after the publication of his 2012 book, Mind and Cosmos. Here is my overview of the book. More detailed posts on the same book are collected under the Nagel rubric.
For a non-philosopher, Ferguson's treatment is accurate. Here are a couple of interesting excerpts in which he relates the thoughts of Daniel Dennett:
Daniel Dennett took a different view. While it is true that materialism tells us a human being is nothing more than a “moist robot”—a phrase Dennett took from a Dilbert comic—we run a risk when we let this cat, or robot, out of the bag. If we repeatedly tell folks that their sense of free will or belief in objective morality is essentially an illusion, such knowledge has the potential to undermine civilization itself, Dennett believes. Civil order requires the general acceptance of personal responsibility, which is closely linked to the notion of free will. Better, said Dennett, if the public were told that “for general purposes” the self and free will and objective morality do indeed exist—that colors and sounds exist, too—“just not in the way they think.” They “exist in a special way,” which is to say, ultimately, not at all.
What amazes me is that people like Dennett fail to appreciate the utter absurdity of what they are maintaining. He obviously believes that civilization and civil order both exist and are worth preserving. This is why he thinks the sober materialist truth ought not be broadcast to hoi polloi. And yet the preservation of civilization and its order require the widespread acceptance of such illusory notions as that of moral responsibility and freedom of the will. But if these notions are illusory, then so are Dennett's value judgment that civilization is worth preserving and his factual judgment that civilization exists.
It is absurd (self-contradictory) to maintain both that civilization is valuable and that every value-judgment is illusory.
It is also absurd to urge that the truth ought to be withheld from the ignorant masses. There is no room for 'ought' in Dennett's eliminativist scheme. Nor is there any room for rational persuasion. Rational persuasion requires that there be reasons, and that people are sensitive to them. But in Dennett's world reasons must be as ultimately illusory as consciousness and free will and all the rest of Wilfrid Sellars' Manifest Image.
It is absurd to attempt to persuade rationally if reasons are illusory.
It is also absurd to put forth 'truths' on a scheme that allows no place for truth.
When all of the following are consigned to the junk heap, then the very eliminativist project consigns itself to the junk heap: consciousness, intentionality, purposiveness, qualia, truth, meaning, , moral responsibility, personhood, free will, normativity in all its varieties . . . .
It's nonsense and the various emperors of this Nonsense are naked. And yet Dennett and Co. can't see it:
“I am just appalled to see how, in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there’s this sort of retrograde gang,” he said, dropping his hands on the table. “They’re going back to old-fashioned armchair philosophy with relish and eagerness. It’s sickening. And they lure in other people. And their work isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.”
There was an air of amused exasperation. “Will you name names?” one of the participants prodded, joking.
“No names!” Dennett said.
The philosopher Alex Rosenberg, author of The Atheist’s Guide, leaned forward, unamused.
“And then there’s some work that is neither cute nor clever,” he said. “And it’s by Tom Nagel.”
There it was! Tom Nagel, whose Mind and Cosmos was already causing a derangement among philosophers in England and America.
Dennett sighed at the mention of the name, more in sorrow than in anger. His disgust seemed to drain from him, replaced by resignation. He looked at the table.
“Yes,” said Dennett, “there is that.”
Around the table, with the PowerPoint humming, they all seemed to heave a sad sigh—a deep, workshop sigh.
Tom, oh Tom . . . How did we lose Tom . . .
Thomas Nagel may be the most famous philosopher in the United States—a bit like being the best power forward in the Lullaby League, but still. His paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” was recognized as a classic when it was published in 1974. Today it is a staple of undergraduate philosophy classes. His books range with a light touch over ethics and politics and the philosophy of mind. His papers are admired not only for their philosophical provocations but also for their rare (among modern philosophers) simplicity and stylistic clarity, bordering sometimes on literary grace.
I chose not to waste any words on the Leiter-Weisberg review of Thomas Nagel's 2012 Mind and Cosmos. Keith Burgess-Jackson discusses it here, and links to Ed Feser's critique:
Ed Feser criticizes the Leiter-Weisberg review. In reading Feser's critique, one grasps the utter shallowness of Leiter and Weisberg. They know just enough philosophy to be dangerous. They're drive-by philosophers!
Nagel is the real thing. Brian Leiter is a status-obsessed careerist and leftist ideologue. Leiter should show more respect for his elders and betters. I do admit, however, that Leiter's is the premier academic gossip site in the whole of the philososphere.
My series of posts on Nagel's Mind and Cosmos is here.
I am beginning to feel a little sorry for Thomas Nagel. It looks as if the only favorable mainstream reviews he will receive for his efforts in Mind and Cosmos will be from theists. What excites the theists' approbation, of course, are not Nagel's positive panpsychist and natural-teleological suggestions, which remain within the ambit of naturalism, but his assault on materialist naturalism. As Alvin Plantinga writes in his excellent review, Why Darwinist Materialism is Wrong, "I applaud his formidable attack on materialist naturalism; I am dubious about panpsychism and natural teleology." And so Nagel's predicament, at least among reviewers in the philosophical mainstream, seems to be as follows. The naturalists will reject his book utterly, both in its negative and positive parts, while the theists will embrace the critique of materialist naturalism while rejecting his panpsychism and natural-teleologism.
Plantinga's review, like ancient Gaul, est in partes tres divisa.
In the first part, Plantinga take himself to be in agreement with Nagel on four points. (1) It is extremely improbable that life could have arisen from inanimate matter by the workings of the laws of physics and chemistry alone. (2) But supposing life has arisen, then natural selection can go to work on random genetic mutations. Still, it is incredible that that all the fantastic variety of life, including human beings, should have arisen in this way. (3) Materialist naturalism cannot explain consciousness. (4) Materialist naturalism cannot explain belief, cognition, and reason.
In the second part of his review, Plantinga discusses Nagel's rejection of theism. Apart from Nagel's honestly admitted temperamental disinclination to believe in God, Plantinga rightly sees Nagel's main substantive objection to theism to reside in theism's putative offense against the unity of the world. But at this point I hand off to myself. In my post Nagel's Reason for Rejecting Theism I give a somewhat more detailed account than does Plantinga of Nagel's rejection.
In the third part of his review, Plantina expresses his doubts about panpsychism and natural teleology. I tend to agree that there could not be purposes without a purposer:
As for natural teleology: does it really make sense to suppose that the world in itself, without the presence of God, should be doing something we could sensibly call “aiming at” some states of affairs rather than others—that it has as a goal the actuality of some states of affairs as opposed to others? Here the problem isn’t just that this seems fantastic; it does not even make clear sense. A teleological explanation of a state of affairs will refer to some being that aims at this state of affairs and acts in such a way as to bring it about. But a world without God does not aim at states of affairs or anything else. How, then, can we think of this alleged natural teleology?
Plantinga ends by suggesting that if it weren't for Nagel's antipathy to religion, his philosophical good sense would lead him to theism.
This is the sixth in a series of posts, collected here, on Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos (Oxford 2012). In my last post I suggested that Nagel needs a principle of plenitude in order to explain the actual existence, as opposed to the mere possibility, of rational organisms. But maybe not, maybe teleology will turn the trick for him. So we need to see what he says about teleology.
Nagel distinguishes "constitutive" from "historical" questions. What is reason? is an example of the former; How did reason arise? of the latter. Now one might wonder whether reason is the sort of thing that could arise. I am tempted to say that reason could no more arise than truth could arise, but then I'm a theist. Nagel, however, must hold that reason arises given his monism. As a monist, he maintains that there is exactly one world, this natural world.
Off the top of my head, I suggest we have at least six options concerning the nature and origin of reason.
A. Interventionist Theism. Reason didn't arise, but always existed. God is its prime instance and source. Reason in us did not arise or emerge from irrational or pre-rational elements but was implanted by God in us. It is part of what makes us of higher origin, an image and likeness of God.
B. Noninterventionist Deism. Reason didn't arise, but always existed. God is its prime instance and source. But God did not infuse or implant reason in certain animals at any point in the evolutionary process; what he did is rig up the world in such a way that rational animals would eventually emerge. Nagel mentions something like this possibility on p. 95.
C. Transcendental Subjectivism. Reason didn't arise, but neither is God its prime instance and source. Reaon is an a priori structure of our subjectivity, a transcendental presupposition without which we cannot carry out our cognitive operations. A view like this could be read out of Kant. A transcendental idealism as opposed to the Hegelian objective idealism that Nagel supports. (17)
D. Reason is a fluke. Reason arose, but it was a cosmic accident. That there are rational beings is simply a brute fact. Nagel rightly rejects this view.
E. Materialist evolutionary naturalism operating by "directionless physical law." (p. 91)
F. Nature-immanent non-intentional teleology.
Nagel rejects all of these options except the last. Unfortunately, Nagel's proposal is so sketchy it is hard to evaluate. To get a handle on it we need to study Nagel's final chapter on value in a separate post. According to natural teleology, the world has an in-built propensity to give rise to beings for whom there is a difference between what is good for them and what is bad for them. There is no agent who intends that such beings should arise; there is just this tendency toward them in nature below the level of mind. And so the explanation of the existence of such beings is not merely causal but teleological: there is is a sort of axiological requiredness in rerum natura that pulls as it were from the future these beings into existence. (See p. 121) This is my way of putting it.
This is the fifth in a series of posts, collected here, on Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos. The question that concerns me in this entry is whether we can forge a link between the intelligibility of nature and the existence of rational beings.
For Nagel, the existence of rational animals is not a brute fact or fluke or cosmic accident. Nagel's somewhat sketchy argument (see p. 86) is along these lines:
1. There are organisms capable of reason. 2. The possibility of such beings must have been there from the beginning. 3. This possibility, however, must be grounded in and explained by the nature of the cosmos. 4. What's more, the nature of the cosmos must explain not only the possibiity but also the actuality of rational animals: their occurrence cannot be a brute fact or cosmic accident.
I take Nagel to be maintaining that the eventual existence of some rational beings or other is no accident but is included in the nature of things from the beginning -- which is consistent with maintaining that there is an element of chance involved in the appearance of any particular instance of reason such as Beethoven. So eventually nature must produce beings capable of understanding it. We are such beings. "Each of our lives is part of the lengthy process of the universe waking up and becoming aware of itself." (85)
Nagel's thesis is not obvious. Why can't reason be a fluke? Even if we grant Nagel that the intelligibility of nature could not have been a fluke or brute fact, how does it follow that the actual existence of some rational beings or other, beings capable of 'glomming onto' the world's intelligible structure, is not a fluke? Nagel's argument needs some 'beefing up' so that it can meet this demand.
1. Let's start with the idea that nature is intelligible. Why? That the world is intelligible is a presupposition of all inquiry. The quest for understanding rests on the assumption that the world is understandable, and indeed by us. The most successful form of this quest is natural science. The success of the scientific quest is evidence that the presupposition holds and is not merely a presupposition we make. The scientific enterprise reveals to us an underlying intelligible order of things not open to perception alone, although of course the confirmation of scientific theories requires perception and the various instruments that extend it.
2. Now what explains this underlying rational order? Two possibilities. One is that nothing does: it's a brute fact. It just happens to be the case that the world is understandable by us, but it might not have been. The rational order of things underpins every explanation but itself has no explanation. The other possibility is that the rational order has an explanation, in which case it has an explanation by something distinct from it, or else is self-explanatory. On theism, the world's rational order is grounded in the divine intellect and is therefore explained by God. On what I take to be Nagel's view, the rational order is self-explanatory, a necessary feature of anything that could count as a cosmos.
Nagel views the intelligibility of the world as "itself part of the deepest explanation why things are as they are." (17). Now part of the way things are is that they are understandable by us. Given that the way things are is intelligible, it follows that the intelligibility of the world is self-explanatory or self-grounding.
Our second premise, then, is that the intelligibilty of the world is self-explanatory, hence a necessary feature of anything that could count as a cosmos.
3. Our third premise is that intelligibility is an an inherently mind-involving notion. Necessarily, if x is intelligible, then x is intelligible to some actual or possible mind. Nothing is understandable unless it is at least possible that there exist some being with the power of understanding.
The conjunction of these three premises entails the possibility of rational beings, but not the actuality of them. There would seem to be a gap in Nagel's reasoning. The world is intelligible, and its intelligibility is a necessary feature of it. From this we can infer that, necessarily, if the cosmos exists, then it is possible that there be rational beings. But that is as far as we can get with these three premises.
4. What Nagel seems to need is a principle of plenitude that allows us to pass from the possibility of rational beings to their actual existence. J. Hintikka has ascribed to Aristotle a form of the principle according to which every genuine possibility must at some time become actual. This would do the trick, but to my knowledge Nagel make no mention of any such principle.
5. I suggest that theism is in a better position when it comes to explaining how both intelligibility and mind are non-accidental. Intelligibility is grounded in the divine intellect which necessarily exists. So there must be at least one rational being. We exist contingently, but the reason in us derives from a noncontingent source.
This site got a nice surge yesterday pushing traffic way over 2000 page views, an uptick that I attribute to Ed Feser's linkage to my recent Nagel posts. (I've been averaging about 1200-1600 pageviews/day) So today Ed gets a 'mavalanche' for his trouble.
Be sure to take a gander at Ed's First Thingsreview of Nagel.
This is the fourth in a series of posts on Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos (Oxford 2012). The posts are conveniently collected under the rubric Nagel, Thomas. Before proceeding with my account of Chapter 4, I will pause in this entry to consider Elliot Sober's serious, substantial, and sober Boston Reviewreview. Sober's sobriety lapses only in the subtitle (which may have been supplied by the editor): "Ending Science as We Know It."
According to Sober, Nagel " . . . argues that evolutionary biology is fundamentally flawed and that physics also needs to be rethought—that we need a new way to do science." This seems to me to misrepresent Nagel's project. His project is not to "end science as we know it" but to indicate the limits of scientific explanation. A legitimate philosophical task is to investigate the limits of even the most successful sciences. (4) Now, to investigate and point out the limits of evolutionary biology and physics is not to argue that they are "fundamentally flawed." They do what they are supposed to do, and the fact that they do not, or cannot, explain certain phenomena that certain scientistically inclined people would like them to explain, is no argument against them. After all, physics cannot explain the proliferation of living species, but that is no argument against physics. If evolutionary biology cannot explain how consciousness arises in certain organisms or the objectively binding character or normative judgments, that is no argument against evolutonary biology. To oppose Darwinian imperialism as Nagel does is not to oppose Darwinism. To suppose that every gap in our understanding can be filled with a Darwinian explanation is rightly ridiculed as "Darwinism of the gaps." (127)
Nagel's targets are not existing successful sciences. He tells us right at the outset what his target is (bolding added): "My target is a comprehensive, speculative world picture that is reached by extrapolation from some of the discoveries of biology, chemistry, and physics -- a particular naturalistic Weltanschauung that postulates a hierarchical relation among the subjects of those sciences, and the completeness in principle of an explanation of everything in the universe through their unification." (4) He goes on to characterize this worldview as "materialist reductionism" and "reductive materialism."
Nagel is therefore not opposing any science but rather a philosophical position, materialist reductionism, that is reached by a speculative-philosophical extrapolation from some of the results of the sciences.
Although Nagel admits that there are some brute facts, mind, the intelligibility of the world, and the fact that there are conscious organisms (45) are not among them. Mind is not an accident or fluke (16) and "The intelligibility of the world is no accident." One of the limits of current evolutionary theory is that it cannot explain why these remarkable fact are non-accidental. Sober does not understand why, if some facts are brute, the remarkable facts of mind, intelligibilty and consciousness are not among them:
My philosophical feelings diverge from Nagel’s. I think that Beethoven’s existence is remarkable, but I regard it as a fluke. He could easily have failed to exist. Indeed, my jaded complacency about Beethoven scales up. I don’t think that life, intelligence, and consciousness had to be in the cards from the universe’s beginning. I am happy to leave this question to the scientists. If they tell me that these events were improbable, I do not shake my head and insist that the scientists must be missing something. There is no such must. Something can be both remarkable and improbable.
Sober seems to be imputing to Nagel the following argument:
What is remarkable cannot be improbable. Life, consciousness, reason, etc. are remarkable Therefore Life, consciousness, reason, etc. cannot be improbable.
Now this is an unsound argument, of course: Beethoven's existence was remarkable but improbable. But this is not the way Nagel is arguing. He needn't be read as denying that there is an element of chance in the appearance of Beethoven, a particular instance of life, consciousness, and reason. His point is rather that consciousness and reason in general cannot be cosmic accidents. Sober ignores what is specific to reason, and views it as just another remarkable fact. Nagel's actual argument (see p. 86) is rather along these lines:
1. There are organisms capable of reason. 2. The possibility of such beings must have been there from the beginning. 3. This possibility, however, must be grounded in and explained by the nature of the cosmos. 4. What's more, the nature of the cosmos must explain not only the possibiity but also the actuality of rational animals: their occurrence cannot be a brute fact or accident.
I take Nagel to be maintaining that the eventual existence of some rational beings or other is no accident -- which is consistent with maintaining that there is an element of chance involved in the appearance of any particular instance of reason such as Beethoven.
Of course, Sober will still balk. Why can't reason be a fluke? Even if we grant Nagel that the intelligibility of nature could not have been a fluke or brute fact, how does it follow that the actual existence of some rational beings or other, beings capable of 'glomming onto' the world's intelligible structure, is not a fluke? In a later post I will try to beef up Nagel's argument so that it can meet this demand.
For now, though, we have a stand-off. Nagel has this deep sense, which I share, that "rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order . . . ." (17) Sober in his sobriety does not share that sense.
There is more to Sober's criqiue than this, but this is enough for today.
This is the third in a series of posts on Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos (Oxford 2012). The first is an overview, and the second addresses Nagel's reason for rejecting theism. This post will comment on some of the content in Chapter 4, "Cognition."
In Chapter 4, Nagel tackles the topic of reason, both theoretical and practical. The emphasis is on theoretical reason, with practical reason receiving a closer treatment in the following chapter entitled "Value."
We have already seen that consciousness presents a problem for evolutionary reductionism due to its irreducibly subjective character. (For some explanation of this irreducibly subjective character, see my Like, What Does It Mean?)
'Consciousness' taken narrowly refers to phenomenal consciousness, pleasures, pains, emotions, and the like, but taken widely it embraces also thought, reasoning and evaluation. Sensory qualia are present in nonhuman animals, but only we think, reason, and evaluate. We evaluate our thoughts as either true or false, our reasonings as either valid or invalid, and our actions as either right or wrong, good or bad. These higher-level capacities can be possessed only by beings that are also conscious in the narrow sense. Thus no computer literally thinks or reasons or evaluates the quality of its reasoning imposing norms on itself as to how it ought to reason if it is to arrive at truth; at best computers simulate these activities. Talk of computers thinking is metaphorical. This is a contested point, of course. But if mind is a biological phenomenon as Nagel maintains, then this is not particularly surprising.
What makes consciousness fascinating is that while it is irreducibly subjective, it is also, in its higher manifestations, transcensive of subjectivity. (This is my formulation, not Nagel's.) Mind is not trapped within its interiority but transcends it toward impersonal objectivity, the "view from nowhere." Consciousness develops into "an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value." (85) Both sides of mind, the subjective and the objective, pose a problem for reductive naturalism. "It is not merely the subjectivity of thought but its capacity to transcend subjectivity and to dsiscover what is objectively the case that presents a problem." (72)
Exactly right! One cannot prise apart the two sides of mind, segregating the qualia problem from the intentionality problem, calling the former 'hard' and imagining the latter to be solved by some functionalist analysis. It just won't work. The so-called Hard Problem is actually insoluble on reductive naturalism, and so is the intentionality problem. (Some who appreciate this go eliminativist -- which is a bit like getting rid of a headache by blowing one's brains out.)
The main problem Nagel deals with in this chapter concerns the reliability of reason. Now it is a given that reason is reliable, though not infallible, and that it is a source of objective knowledge. The problem is not whether reason is reliable as a source of knowledge, but how it it is possible for reason to be reliable if evolutionary naturalism is true. I think it is helpful to divide this question into two:
Q1. How can reason be reliable if materialist evolutionary naturalism is true?
Q2. How can reason be reliable if evolutionary naturalism is true?
Let us not forget that Nagel himself is an evolutionary naturalist. He is clearly a naturalist as I explained in my first post, and he does not deny the central tenets of the theory of evolution. His objections are to reductive materialism (psychophysical reductionism) and not to either naturalism or evolution. Now Nagel is quite convinced, and I am too, that the answer to (Q1) is that it is not possible for reason to be relied upon in the manner in which we do in fact rely upon it, if materialism is true. The open question for Nagel is (Q2). Reason is reliable, and some version of evolutionary naturalism is also true. The problem is to understand how it is possible for both of them to be true.
Now in this post I am not concerned with Nagel's tentative and admttedly speculative answer to (Q2). I hope to take that up in a subsequent post. My task at present is to understand why Nagel thinks that it is not possible for reason to be reliable if materialism is true.
Suppose we contrast seeing a tree with grasping a truth by reason.
Vision is for the most part reliable: I am, for the most part, justified in believing the evidence of my senses. And this despite the fact that from time to time I fall victim to perceptual illusions. My justification is in no way undermined if I think of myself and my visual system as a product of Darwinian natural selection. "I am nevertheless justified in believing the evidence of my senses for the most part, because this is consistent with the hypothesis that an accurate representation of the world around me results from senses shaped by evolution to serve that function." (80)
Now suppose I grasp a truth by reason. (E.g., that I must be driving North because the rising sun is on my right.) Can the correctness of this logical inference be confirmed by the reflection that the reliability of logical thinking is consistent with the hypothesis that evolution has selected instances of such thinking for accuracy?
No, says Nagel and for a very powerful reason. When I reason I engage in such operations as the following: I make judgments about consistency and inconsistency; draw conclusions from premises; subsume particulars under universals, etc. So if I judge that the reliability of reason is consistent with an evolutionary explanation of its origin, I presuppose the reliability of reason in making this very judgement. Nagel writes:
It is not possible to think, "reliance on my reason, including my reliance on this very judgment, is reasonable because it is consistent with its having an evolutionary explanation." Therefore any evolutionary account of the place of reason presupposes reason's validity and cannot confirm it without circularity. (80-81)
Nagel's point is that the validity of reason can neither be confirmed nor undermined by any evolutionary account of its origins. Moreover, if reason has a merely materialist origin it would not be reliable, for then its appearance would be a fluke or accident. And yet reason is tied to organisms just as consciousness is. Nagel faces the problem of explaining how reason can be what it is, an "instrument of transcendence" (85) and a "final court of appeal" (83), while also being wholly natural and a product of evolution. I'll address this topic in a later post.
Why can't reason be a cosmic accident, a fluke? This is discussed in my second post linked to above, though I suspect I will be coming back to it.
This is the second in a series. My overview of Thomas Nagel's new book, Mind and Cosmos, is here.
I agree with Nagel that mind is not a cosmic accident. Mind in all of its ramifications (sentience, intentionality, self-awareness, cognition, rationality, normativity in general) could not have arisen from mindless matter. To put it very roughly, and in my own way, mind had to be there already and all along in one way or another. Not an "add-on" as Nagel writes, but "a basic aspect of nature." (16)
Two ways mind could have been there already and all along are Nagel's panpsychistic way and the theistic way. My task in this entry is to understand and then evaluate Nagel's reasons for rejecting theism.
But first let's back up a step and consider the connection between mind and intelligibility. That the world is intelligible is a presupposition of all inquiry. The quest for understanding rests on the assumption that the world is understandable, and indeed by us. The most successful form of this quest is natural science. The success of the scientific quest is evidence that the presupposition holds and is not merely a presupposition we make. The scientific enterprise reveals to us an underlying intelligible order of things not open to perception alone, although of course the confirmation of scientific theories requires perception and the various instruments that extend it.
Now what explains this underlying rational order? Two possibilities. One is that nothing does: it's a brute fact. It just happens to be the case that the world is understandable by us, but it might not have been. The rational order of things underpins every explanation but itself has no explanation. The other possibility is that the rational order has an explanation, in which case it has an explanation by something distinct from it, or else is self-explanatory. On theism, the world's rational order is grounded in the divine intellect and is therefore explained by God. On what I take to be Nagel's view, the rational order is self-explanatory, a necessary feature of anything that could count as a cosmos.
Nagel views the intelligibility of the world as "itself part of the deepest explanation why things are as they are." (17). Now part of the way things are is that they are understandable by us. Given that the way things are is intelligible, it follows that the intelligibility of the world is self-explanatory or self-grounding.
"The intelligibility of the world is no accident." (17) The same is true of mind. The two go together: an intelligible world is one that is intelligible to mind, and mind is mind only if it can 'glom onto' an antecedent order of things. (This is my way of putting it, not Nagel's!) Intelligibility is necessarily mind-involving, and mind (apart from mere qualia) is necessarily an understanding of something. One could say that there is an antecedent community of nature between mind and world which allows mind to have an object to understand and the world to be understandable by mind. What I am calling the antecedent community of nature between mind and world Nagel expresses by saying that "nature is such as to give rise to conscious beings with minds; and it is such as to be comprehensible to such beings." (17)
That neither mind nor intelligibility are cosmic accidents, and that they 'go together' as just explained could be accepted by both Nagelian panpsychists and theists. So why does Nagel reject theism?
His main reason seems to be couched in the following quotations:
. . . the disadvantage of theism as an answer to the desire for comprehensive understanding is not that it offers no explanations but that it does not do so in the form of a comprehensive account of the natural order. [. . .] But it would not be the kind of understanding that explains how beings like us fit into the world. The kind of intelligibility that would still be missing is intelligibility of the natural order itself -- intelligibility from within. (25-26)
Nagel does not do a very good job of presenting his argument clearly, but the following is what I take him to be driving at.
Materialism cannot explain the origin of life from inanimate matter, the origin of consciousness from pre-conscious life, or the origin of reason in conscious beings. Nondeistic theism can explain these crucial transitions by means of divine interventions into the workings of nature. (Deism would leave the crucial transitions as brute facts and is rejectable for this reason.) To subscribe to such interventionist hypotheses, however, is to deny that there is a comprehensive natural order. Nature would not be intelligible from within itself, in its own terms. So maybe Nagel's argument could be put like this:
1. Nature is immanently intelligible: it has the source of its intelligibility entirely within itself and not from a source outside itself.
2. On theism, nature is not immanently intelligible: God is the source of nature's intelligibility. (This is because divine intervention is needed to explain the crucial transitions to life, to consciousness, and to reason, transitions which otherwise would be unintelligible.)
3. Theism suffers from a serious defect that make it reasonable to pursue a third course, panpsychism, as a way to avoid both materialism and theism.
Now I've put the matter more clearly than Nagel does, but I'd be surprised if this is not what he is arguing, at least on pp 25-26.
As for evaluation, the argument as presented is reasonable but surely not compelling. A theist needn't be worried by it. He could argue that it begs the question at the first premise. How divine interventions into the course of nature are so much as possible is of course a problem for theists, but Plantinga has an answer for that. The theist can also go on the attack and mount a critique of panpsychism, a fit topic for future posts.
There is also the question of why the cosmos exists at all. It is plausible to maintain that the cosmos is necessarily intelligible, that it wouldn't be a cosmos if it weren't. But necessary intelligibility is consistent with contingent existence. Will Nagel say that the cosmos necessarily exists? How would he ground that? Panpsychism, if tenable, will relieve us of the dualisms of matter-life, life-consciousness, mind-body. But it doesn't have the resources to explain the very existence of the cosmos.
I think I shall have to write a number of posts on this exciting and idea-rich book by one of our best philosophers. Here is the first.
Short (128 pp.) and programmatic, Thomas Nagel's new book explores the prospects of an approach in the philosophy of mind that is naturalistic yet not materialistic. His approach is naturalistic in that he locates the source of the world's intelligibility in it, and not in a transcendent being such as God outside it. As Nagel rightly observes, "Theism pushes the quest for intelligibility outside the world." (p. 45)
Nagel's approach is also naturalistic in that he views mind as a biological phenomenon as it could not be if substance dualism were true. But while naturalistic, Nagel also rejects "psychophysical reductionism" or "reductive materialism." Thus he rejects naturalism as currently articulated without embracing any form of anti-naturalism such as theism. Nagel, we might say, seeks a middle path between theistic anti-naturalism and materialistic naturalism. The latter is just materialism which Nagel defines as follows:
Materialism is the view that only the physical world is irreducibly real, and that a place must be found in it for mind, if there is such a thing. This would continue the onward march of physical science, through molecular biology, to full closure by swallowing up the mind in the objective physical reality from which it was initially excluded. (37)
This is a useful definition. Materialism is either eliminativist or reductivist. Now obviously there is such a thing as mind, so eliminativism is not an option. (41) My arguments against it here. So the materialist must try to show that mind belongs to objective physical reality and that everything about it is understandable in the way everything else in objective physical reality is understandable. In this way materialism closes upon itself, explaining not only the world the mind engages, but the engaging mind itself. I agree with Nagel that reductive materialism is untenable.
Treading his via media between theism and materialism, Nagel reopens the case for neutral monism and panpsychism. How does he get to these positions? This is what I will try to figure out in this post.
Mind is a biological phenomenon. We are organisms in nature, not Cartesian egos contingently attached to physical bodies. But we are conscious organisms. We are subjects of such qualitative states as pleasure and pain, and we are individuals with a subjective point of view. If psychophysical reductionism fails, as both Nagel and I maintain, then physical science, even if it can explain our existence as organisms adapted to an environment, cannot explain our existence as conscious organisms. We are not just objects in the world, we are subjects for whom there is a world. Even if the first fact can be adequately explained by physical science, the second, our subjectivity, cannot be.
Given the failure of psychophysical reductionism, and given that mind is a biological phenomenon encountered only in conscious organisms that have evolved from pre-conscious organisms, evolutionary theory cannot be a purely physical theory. (44) The 'makings' of conscious organsims must already be present in pre-conscious life forms. In this way the mind-body problem spreads to the entire cosmos and its history. Thus "the mind-body problem is not just a local problem" that concerns such minded organisms as ourselves. (3)
Inanimate matter evolved into pre-conscious life forms, and these evolved into conscious life forms. Since conscious organisms qua conscious cannot be understood materalistically, the same is true of pre-conscious life forms: the reduction of biology to physics and chemistry will also fail. This is because life must contain within it the 'makings' of consciousness. That is my way of putting it, not Nagel's.
Turning it around the other way, if we are to have an adequate naturalistic explanation of conscious organisms, then this cannot be "a purely physical explanation." (44) And so Nagel floats the suggestion of a global (as opposed to local) neutral monism "according to which the constituents of the universe have properties that explain not only its [mental life's] physical but its mental character." (56) Conscious organisms are composed of the same ultimate stuff as everything else is. For this reason, neutral monism cannot be kept local but goes global or "universal." (57) The idea, I take it, is that even the merely physical is proto-mental, the merely living being even more so. When conscious organisms arrive on the scene, the proto-mental constituents achieve an arrangement and composition that amounts to mental life as we know it.
Now how do we get from this universal neutral monism to panpsychism? Well, a universal neutral monism just is panpsychism: the ultimate constituents of nature are all of them proto-mental. Mind is everywhere since everything is composed of the same proto-mental constituents. But it is equally true that matter is everywhere since there is nothing mental or proto-mental that is not also physical.
Thus we arrive at a position that is neither theistic nor reductively materialistic.
Let me now try to list the key premises/assumptions in Nagel's argument for his panpsychistic naturalism.
1. Consciousness is real. Eliminativist materialism is a complete non-starter.
2. Naturalism: Consciousness occurs only in conscious organisms, hence cannot occur without physical realization. Mind is a biological phenomenon. No God, no Cartesian minds. No substance dualism, no theism.
3. Reductive Materialism (psychophysical reductionism) is untenable.
4. Consciousness cannot be a brute fact. Mind is not an accident but "a basic aspect of nature." (16) It cannot be that consciousness just inexplicably occurred at a certain point in evolutionary history when organisms of a certain physical complexity appeared. The arrival of conscious organisms needs an explanation, and this explanation cannot be an explanation merely of their physical character. It must also explain their mental character. But this materialism cannot do. Hence "materialism is incomplete even as a theory of the physical world, since the physical world includes conscious organisms as its most striking occupants." (45)
5. Nature is intelligible. Its intelligibility is inherent in it and thus not imposed on it by us or by God. The intelligibility of nature is not a brute fact: nature doesn't just happen, inexplicably, to possess a rational order that is understandable by us. I take Nagel's position to be that intelligibility is a necessary feature of anything that could count as a cosmos. Thus it needs no explanation and surely cannot have a materialist one: it cannot possibly be the case that the intelligibility of nature arose at some time in the past via the operation of material causes. The universe is so constituted as to be understandable, and we, as parts of it, are so constituted as to be able to understand it. (16-17)
I accept all of these propositions except (2). So in a subsequent post I must examine whether Nagel's case against theism is stronger than his case for his panpsychism.