Not Sufficiently Reassuring

Peter Godfrey-Smith

  • Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel
    Oxford, 130 pp, £15.99, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 991975 8

The universe has woken up. If the scientific picture we currently have is right, this was an accident, roughly speaking, and also something that happened very locally. At various places some highly organised physical systems – living organisms – have become aware of the world they are part of. In a few cases they have also become aware of their awareness. These living systems are products of evolution by natural selection, an undirected process that began in a fortuitous combining of chemical and physical conditions, whose course is dependent on accidents of history, and which is driven by the slight reproductive advantages some organisms enjoy over others. Even if Earth is not the only place where this has happened, the vast majority of the universe contains no awareness, no life, no reasoning. We, the awoken parts of the universe, can look around and reflect on all this, including the fact that there is no overall purpose to our being here. So the universe has ‘woken up’, but in a local, accidental and low-key sense.

Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos rejects this view and tries to build another. His subtitle is ‘Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False’. It is false, Nagel says, because it cannot deal with a cluster of real phenomena: consciousness, the origin and evolution of life itself, our powers of reason, and our sense of the reality of moral values. In the place of materialism Nagel does not endorse a theological view, and he does not postulate souls as spiritual additions to the physical world. He aims instead for a unified picture, in which life, consciousness, reason and value are not inexplicable anomalies, but features of the world that arise naturally and fall into place as expected. The result is a view that embraces evolution but also has, as Nagel says, an ‘idealist’ character. Teleological principles may have moved the universe towards some kind of goal or fulfilment, and a glimmer of mentality may permeate even basic physical processes. For Nagel it is true in a more global way, a wholesale way, that ‘each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.’

Nagel begins with the clearest of materialism’s problems: the great difficulty it has explaining the subjective character of experience, the feel of our mental lives: the feel of seeing colours and tasting wine, the feel of thought itself. Despite all the careful work that has been done in this area over the past fifty years, for Nagel the problem is as recalcitrant as ever. Materialism does indeed struggle to give a good explanation of these features of our minds. However, if materialism were somehow true, it would seem not to be true. The view from inside a conscious physical system would be distinctive in ways that would make it hard to understand from a third-person perspective: having an experience is very different from describing that experience, regardless of what the system having the experience is made of.

This holds back some arguments against materialism, but problems remain. In response to them, Nagel outlines a form of ‘neutral monism’. Neutral monism has for some time been a fringe character in debates about the mind-body problem. It was developed in different forms by eminent figures in early 20th-century philosophy, including Russell and Dewey, but then faded. A neutral monist argues that the mental and the physical are both manifestations of something more basic. It is a mistake, according to this view, to try to explain mind in terms of matter, or vice versa (hence the term ‘neutral’). But it is also a mistake to think there are two fundamental ingredients of the world (as a dualist does), rather than one.

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