Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel

Laura

Administrator
Administrator
Moderator
FOTCM Member
This book was mentioned in the thread about Rupert Sheldrake's new book "The Science Delusion".
http://cassiopaea.org/forum/index.php/topic,26625.0.html

"Mind and Cosmos:Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False" by Thomas Nagel:

http://www.amazon.com/Mind-Cosmos-Materialist-Neo-Darwinian-ebook/dp/B008SQL6NS/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1359090769&sr=8-2&keywords=mind+and+cosmos

I started reading it yesterday and I'll probably finish later today. It's not a big book, but it is a little bit tough going because the language and style is not very "user friendly". But that's philosophy for you!

Anyway, in the Sheldrake thread I noted initially after reading the first chapter or two:

Well, I'm really liking Nagel's book. He is saying a lot of the things I've already written in the next volume of Secret History under the topic headings of Information Theory and Origins of Life, etc. I've also included a long excerpt from Ark's new book on the corruption of science which addresses many of these problems in a very practical way.

The title of the next volume is "Bull Slaying From Romulus to Caesar" though it covers more than just that period of Roman history. And, the first half of the book is, again, taken up with indispensable concepts that are explained in an entertaining way, I hope.

I touched on many of these topics in my talks in Barcelona, but this will be a fuller, written, development. And now, I can even introduce Nagel and some of his ideas which will be a nice addition.
That was an initial quick appraisal. But as I continue through the book, some other things occur to me so I thought I would start a thread about it.

What occurs to me, 2/3 of the way through, is that what Nagel is approaching or trying to describe is the essence of the problem at the root of the division of humanity between those capable of higher thought and those incapable of it, i.e. Organic Portals vs souled or potentially souled humans. We have also discussed here that psychopaths might be a particular type of Organic Portal.

Anyway, it's a good book, if difficult. I may try to condense and simplify it.
 

Approaching Infinity

Administrator
Administrator
Moderator
FOTCM Member
Laura said:
What occurs to me, 2/3 of the way through, is that what Nagel is approaching or trying to describe is the essence of the problem of at the root of the division of humanity between those capable of higher thought and those incapable of it, i.e. Organic Portals vs souled or potentially souled humans. We have also discussed here that psychopaths might be a particular type of Organic Portal.

Anyway, it's a good book, if difficult. I may try to condense and simplify it.
I'm on the last chapter, and I agree. It's a great distillation of (and goes further than) some of the other books on the subject I've read in the last several years (David Ray Griffin's book on Whitehead, Fifth Option, Sheldrake's Science Delusion, Kelly Mitchell's Spiritual Autopsy). One aspect that Sheldrake lacks in the books of his that I've read so far is exactly the kind of assault on 'origin of life hypotheses' that Nagel makes here (Sheldrake focuses mainly on his theory of morphic causation but doesn't really touch the problems inherent in a materialist view of OOL). But they make several similar points on the problems of materialism.

I was expecting the discussion of consciousness and the difficulty of placing it in current evolutionary theory, but the chapter on cognition and reason was a nice surprise. Other authors have touched on the problem, but it's nice to see it so neatly laid out within the various theories, and how it fits in his teleological model. And it's such a relief to see how well he presents an alternative to all the 'post-modern' concepts of truth and reality. I liked these parts (among others):

In ordinary perception, we are like mechanisms governed by a (roughly) truth-preserving algorithm. But when we reason, we are like a mechanism that can see that the algorithm it follows is truth-preserving. ... we have to explain not only consciousness as it enters into perception, emotion, desire, and aversion but also the conscious control of belief and conduct in response to the awareness of reasons ... This is what it is to allow oneself to be guided by the objective truth, rather than just by one's impressions. {Maybe some humans lacks the full extent of this capacity?}

...

This, then, is what a theory of everything has to explain: not only the emergence from a lifeless universe of reproducing organisms and their development by evolution to greater and greater functional complexity; not only the consciousness of some of those organisms and its central role in their lives; but also the development of consciousness to an instrument that can grasp objective reality and objective value.
 

Laura

Administrator
Administrator
Moderator
FOTCM Member
Approaching Infinity said:
I'm on the last chapter, and I agree. It's a great distillation of (and goes further than) some of the other books on the subject I've read in the last several years (David Ray Griffin's book on Whitehead, Fifth Option, Sheldrake's Science Delusion, Kelly Mitchell's Spiritual Autopsy). One aspect that Sheldrake lacks in the books of his that I've read so far is exactly the kind of assault on 'origin of life hypotheses' that Nagel makes here (Sheldrake focuses mainly on his theory of morphic causation but doesn't really touch the problems inherent in a materialist view of OOL). But they make several similar points on the problems of materialism.

I was expecting the discussion of consciousness and the difficulty of placing it in current evolutionary theory, but the chapter on cognition and reason was a nice surprise. Other authors have touched on the problem, but it's nice to see it so neatly laid out within the various theories, and how it fits in his teleological model. And it's such a relief to see how well he presents an alternative to all the 'post-modern' concepts of truth and reality.
Yes. I'm seriously impressed with him. He's taken the problem to an all-new level brilliantly.

Why don't you see if you can summarize the book, the problems and arguments, and get it into some easier to grok language for others? It really is worth a wider readership than he is likely to get otherwise. I was planning on making some notes myself for inclusion with my own discussion of the same problems, which I came at from a different angle, but if you do it, it will save me time because there are two or three pretty thick books I still need to get through before I resume writing. I have to deal with the Persians because they are very important to all that comes next, and I want to know everything that is known or speculated inside and out and that is taking a little time.
 

Gaby

SuperModerator
Moderator
FOTCM Member
In ordinary perception, we are like mechanisms governed by a (roughly) truth-preserving algorithm. But when we reason, we are like a mechanism that can see that the algorithm it follows is truth-preserving.
That is a great way to put it!
 

Approaching Infinity

Administrator
Administrator
Moderator
FOTCM Member
Laura said:
Approaching Infinity said:
I'm on the last chapter, and I agree. It's a great distillation of (and goes further than) some of the other books on the subject I've read in the last several years (David Ray Griffin's book on Whitehead, Fifth Option, Sheldrake's Science Delusion, Kelly Mitchell's Spiritual Autopsy). One aspect that Sheldrake lacks in the books of his that I've read so far is exactly the kind of assault on 'origin of life hypotheses' that Nagel makes here (Sheldrake focuses mainly on his theory of morphic causation but doesn't really touch the problems inherent in a materialist view of OOL). But they make several similar points on the problems of materialism.

I was expecting the discussion of consciousness and the difficulty of placing it in current evolutionary theory, but the chapter on cognition and reason was a nice surprise. Other authors have touched on the problem, but it's nice to see it so neatly laid out within the various theories, and how it fits in his teleological model. And it's such a relief to see how well he presents an alternative to all the 'post-modern' concepts of truth and reality.
Yes. I'm seriously impressed with him. He's taken the problem to an all-new level brilliantly.

Why don't you see if you can summarize the book, the problems and arguments, and get it into some easier to grok language for others? It really is worth a wider readership than he is likely to get otherwise. I was planning on making some notes myself for inclusion with my own discussion of the same problems, which I came at from a different angle, but if you do it, it will save me time because there are two or three pretty thick books I still need to get through before I resume writing. I have to deal with the Persians because they are very important to all that comes next, and I want to know everything that is known or speculated inside and out and that is taking a little time.
Okey-dokey! It'll be a challenge, but fun, and I'm sure once I'm done others will help to point out my errors. ;) I think I'll post it chapter-by-chapter and try to have it done by the weekend.
 

Approaching Infinity

Administrator
Administrator
Moderator
FOTCM Member
Mind and Cosmos Summary

Chapter 1 - Introduction

Nagel begins by pointing out the extensive implications of the mind-body problem (i.e., the apparent division between mind and matter, and the nature of their relationship). Not only is it 'local', in the sense of trying to explain what exactly 'minds' are and how they relate to bodies (is mind an illusion? an epiphenomenon, or mere product of physical complexity? a nonmaterial thing?); but it also relates to our entire understanding of the cosmos and its history: physical sciences and evolutionary biology should take these philosophical implications into account. The question is: Are our current tools of knowledge sufficient to understand the universe as a whole? To Nagel, the answer is "No." Part of philosophy involves pointing out the limitations of ideas and methods in current use, as the scientists using them often take them for granted. So Nagel's goal as a philosopher here is a "comprehensive, speculative world picture," extrapolating from the physical sciences and trying to unify them in "an explanation of everything in the universe."

The physical sciences take a position of "psychophysical reductionism," i.e., they attempt to 'reduce' the features of mind to the physical parts which allegedly produce mental processes and phenomena. Nagel thinks this position fails to give a sufficient understanding of the world. Nagel favours "neutral monism," which he describes in a later chapter. Some of the facts that a good position must account for: mind's seeming dependence on the appearance of living organism as a result of physical, chemical and biological evolution (no physical body, no mind, as far as we can tell).

As for empirical (as opposed to philosophical) reasons to reject reductionism, there are these:

[list type=decimal]
[*]the implausibility of idea that the physical and chemical laws of "dead matter" could solely result in a self-reproducing organism as a result of a sequence of physical accidents (does such a position have even a non-negligible probability of being true? No). As he says, "the coming into existence of the genetic code--an arbitrary mapping of nucleotide sequences into amino acids, together with mechanisms that can read the code and carry out its instructions--seems particularly resistant to being revealed as probable given physical law alone."
[*]the implausibility that enough genetic variation could occur in the geological time available in evolutionary history "without the operation of some other factors determining and restricting the forms of genetic variation."
[/list]

The orthodox opinion on these issues concerning the origin of life seems to be governed by unsupported assumptions such as these, and it "flies in the face of common sense." Nagel also criticizes the scorn with which intelligent design proponents are typically met at the hands of the scientific community, pointing out that despite their religious motivations, their empirical arguments are often "of great interest in themselves." He thinks that their criticisms stand, even if their explanations may be inadequate. The unanswered questions of life's origin, and the failures of psychophysical reductionism suggest that there is something missing from the picture, e.g., principles of growth that are "teleological rather than mechanistic" (that is, they move towards a purpose as opposed to following blind, chance cause and effect)

Nagel states two constraints on his project: first, "an assumption that certain things are so remarkable that they have to be explained as non-accidental if we are to pretend to a real understanding of the world," and second, "the ideal of discovering a single natural order that unifies everything on the bases of a set of common elements and principles." (Dualism rejects this ideal, while materialism and idealism fail to realize it. Theism bends the rules by trying to explain "certain features of the natural world by divine intervention, which is not part of the natural order.") So Nagel is trying to give an account of the cosmos that is self-consistent and fully explanatory, without adding in "transcendent" factors from the outside (like God), which are untestable and complicate matters.

Here he makes a point that will come up repeatedly: such a comprehensive understanding will have both timeless, "constitutive" features (just as physical laws are seemingly timeless and constitute a fundamental part of the nature of the cosmos) as well as historical ones (as is seen in evolutionary biology and big-bang cosmology). But he adds: "Mind, as a development of life, must be included as the most recent stage of this long cosmological history, and its appearance, I believe, casts its shadow back over the entire process and the constituents and principles on which the process depends."

Nagel does not think we must be forced to choose between the current materialist approach of the physical sciences (designed for studying a "mindless universe") and one under the influence of a transcendent being. There are other, better options.
 

Nook

Dagobah Resident
FOTCM Member
This does seem very interesting, thanks for doing the summary, AI. :)

I can't wait to read the following chapters as well
 

Approaching Infinity

Administrator
Administrator
Moderator
FOTCM Member
(If something isn't clear, or you have questions, please ask and I'll try to clarify.)

Chapter 2 - Anti-reductionism and the Natural Order

2.1
There's a conflict current in philosophy, between various forms of scientific, materialist naturalism and "anti-reductionism." According to materialism, all that exists are physical facts (revealed by physical sciences), and everything in the cosmos can be understood in reference to these facts. Anti-reductionism, on the other hand, doubts that things like "consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value" can be reduced in this way. It is 'negative' in the sense that it points out the problems of materialism and that something is missing in that account, but it doesn't always offer alternatives. Nagel wants to see if a 'positive' account, an alternative understanding, is possible.

"... our mental capacities apparently depend on our physical constitution," so whatever explains biology must also explain mind. But neither the mental, nor the physical parts that come with the mental, can be fully explained by current science. Evolutionary biology cannot account for the appearance of consciousness. What are the consequence of rejecting reductionism? If reductionism fails to account for certain aspects of reality, materialism must also be false. "A genuine alternative to the reductionist program would require an account of how mind and everything that goes with it is inherent in the universe." This leaves two possibilities: either the universe is "not exclusively physical" or "there is no comprehensive order."

2.2
Nagel's guiding conviction is that mind is "a basic aspect of nature." Support for this is found in one of the conditions of science: "the assumption that the world is intelligible." The world can be not only described but also understood. If it couldn't be, we would have had no scientific discoveries and experiments wouldn't work - nothing would make sense. How can we explain the order that science seemingly discovers? One answer is that it's 'just the way things are,' and nothing really explains it - we're just describing facts. But Nagel thinks that it makes more sense to assume that the fact that the universe can be understood "is itself part of the deepest explanation of why things are as they are." Some explanations are better than others simply by the virtue that they give greater understanding and are more likely to be true. If something initially seems arbitrary, "that is because there are further things we do not know, which explain why they are not arbitrary after all. … The intelligibility of the world is no accident. … Nature is such as to give rise to conscious beings with minds; and it is such as to be comprehensible to such beings. Ultimately, therefore, such beings should be comprehensible to themselves."

2.3
Natural science is one of the ways in which the world is intelligible. But how much of the universe can be explained simply in reference to physical laws? All of it? Even if this were the case, science would still have to account for the intelligibility that makes science possible in the first place. It attempts to do this by explaining mind as s "highly specific biological side effect of the physical order." This is because it seems physical laws (with greater and greater refinements throughout history and projected into the future) as the only way to understand the cosmos, and thinks that it is the best way to come to "the most fundamental explanation of everything."

This has led science to evolutionary biology, which sees the possibility of explaining life in terms of physics and chemistry, all built on the foundation of particle physics. Even if the details are still fuzzy, in principle, a full explanation should be possible, thus explaining life and minds capable of understanding all of this in terms of basic physical laws. But isn't that premature? As long as we don't know, it seems arrogant to claim to know exactly how future discoveries will progress, and which possibilities are ruled out before the fact. And if physical laws explain everything, why do those laws hold in the first place?

2.4
Theism is the polar opposite of materialism. It sees mind as the fundamental level that explains everything, "including the explanation of the basic and universal laws themselves." Physical laws are a consequence of mind, not the other way around. The intelligibility of the world is seen in terms of God's intention or purpose (we are miniature versions of a comprehensive mental source - God's mind - thus explaining how mind fits into the world). But if the world really is intelligible, as it seems to be, it should be possible to understand it. Concepts like God's mind (and materialism) put a block in the way of complete understanding, "stopping point(s) in the pursuit of understanding." We can't come to full understanding because we can't think past them. Nagel wants to find a way to explain the cosmos that accounts for mind "as a fundamental principle of nature along with physical law," without falling back on divine intention, and without explaining it away in terms of matter.

2.5
In terms of understanding ourselves, both theism and materialism attempt to do so "from the outside" - with reference to something external to ourselves. In theism, we understand ourselves in reference to God, who is transcendent (we can't know God's full purpose or understanding, and even if the world is intelligible as a result of God's intention, it isn't fully so to us). We extrapolate our own self-understanding to the ultimate level of God. In materialism, we extrapolate our scientific understanding based on study of some parts of the world, to the whole of the world. Both attempt an understanding that transcends us - we seem drawn to a larger world view that encompasses everything, not just ourselves. "And to succeed, that larger world view must encompass itself" (which materialism and theism do not).

Naturally, any such attempt has to start with our own point of view - it's our observations and reasoning that begin the process of making a world view, after all. Both theism and materialism try to explain how we can trust our own faculties to engage in this process in the first place. (If we can't trust our perceptions and thoughts, how can we come to any firm conclusions?) For theism, we trust our perception because God would not deceive us; for materialism, because we wouldn't have survived if we couldn't reach generally reliable beliefs (e.g., that's a bear, not an acorn). Either way, it's always possible that our beliefs are systematically false. But even then, Nagel thinks there's a third option for a transcendent world view (one which transcends a mere understanding of ourselves, and places us within a larger whole), which is plausible, "more modest and perhaps more realistic." He thinks this is possible, even if it appears that our very faculties for doing so are 'contingent,' or dependent, on our seemingly chance evolution. "The hope is not to discover a foundation that makes our knowledge unassailably secure to but find a way of understanding ourselves that is not radically self-undermining, and that does not require us to deny the obvious."

2.6
Even if theism reassuringly attempts to account for more of reality than materialism, it only offers a "very partial explanation of our place in the world." It doesn't explain how God's intention or purpose actually operates, and therefore doesn't give a comprehensive account of the natural order of the cosmos. It "pushes the quest for intelligibility outside the world," not from within. (God is outside of the natural order, not governed by natural laws.) It recognizes "brute facts" that can't be explained by science (e.g., the origin of life, birth of consciousness), explains them as products of divine intervention. In fact, "Such interventionist hypotheses amount to a denial that there is a comprehensive natural order." In other words, we can't explain it, so let's just say God did it.

Materialism does attempt a full understanding, but isn't very reassuring. It undermines itself. When we theorize about evolution, we're using faculties that are allegedly a product of this evolution. But can we trust a product of evolution to come to correct conclusions about evolution? Nagel doesn't think so. "Mechanisms of belief formation that have selective advantage in the everyday struggle for existence do not warrant our confidence in the construction of theoretical accounts of the world as a whole." Just like vision, which we trust, but know could be faulty, our cognitive faculties could be reliable, but not in the sense in which we usually take them to be reliable - as in science in general, and maths, and logic. Also, "[the evolutionary hypothesis] does not explain why we are justified in relying on [our cognitive capacities] to correct other cognitive dispositions that lead us astray. … Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn't take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends." Again, this isn't a criticism of our faculties, but a criticism of evolutionary theory; there is another possibility. It's not unreasonable to test hypotheses by reference to common sense - "ordinary judgments in which we have a very high confidence" - in fact, they have to be.

2.7
Nagel also thinks we must reject the view that rejects any external (transcendent) self-understanding, and which understands the world solely from within. Such a project denies the possibility of the quest for a single reality, "because there are many kinds of truth and many kinds of thought …" So how can we combine what we do know into a coherent world view?

First, we know that "the world generates conscious beings capable of recognizing reasons for action and belief, distinguishing some necessary truths, and evaluating the evidence for alternative hypotheses about the natural order." We also see "our clearest moral and logical reasonsings" as objectively valid. A world view must account for this confidence. And even though we don't have such a world view, we still go on using such faculties in our everyday lives, constructing theories based on perception, reason, logic. We still know that 2+2=4, even if we don't know exactly how and why we know it. A good theory must explain "the existence of conscious minds and their access to the evident truths of ethics and mathematics." It must have both materialist and rational elements, and everything present now in the universe (including consciousness, perception, desire, action, etc.) must have been somehow inherent as possibilities long before life appeared. And the fact that these possibilities came to be (in the forms of life) would be a significant likelihood (not a vanishingly rare coincidence) given the structure of the universe.

Nagel's own summary: "the respective inadequacies of materialism and theism as transcendent conceptions, and the impossibility of abandoning the search for a transcendent view of our place in the universe, lead to the hope for an expanded but still naturalistic understanding that avoids psychophysical reductionism. The essential character of such an understanding would be to explain the appearance of life, consciousness, reason, and knowledge neither as accidental side effects of the physical laws of nature nor as the result of intentional intervention in nature from without but as an unsurprising if not inevitable consequence of the order that governs the natural world from within. That order would have to include physical law, but if life is not just a physical phenomenon, the origin and evolution of life and mind will not be explainable by physics and chemistry alone. An expanded, but still unified, form of explanation will be needed, and I suspect it will have to include teleological elements."
 

psychegram

Jedi Master
Thanks AI!

Nagel's own summary: "the respective inadequacies of materialism and theism as transcendent conceptions, and the impossibility of abandoning the search for a transcendent view of our place in the universe, lead to the hope for an expanded but still naturalistic understanding that avoids psychophysical reductionism. The essential character of such an understanding would be to explain the appearance of life, consciousness, reason, and knowledge neither as accidental side effects of the physical laws of nature nor as the result of intentional intervention in nature from without but as an unsurprising if not inevitable consequence of the order that governs the natural world from within. That order would have to include physical law, but if life is not just a physical phenomenon, the origin and evolution of life and mind will not be explainable by physics and chemistry alone. An expanded, but still unified, form of explanation will be needed, and I suspect it will have to include teleological elements."
By which he implies the future catalyzes the past, just as the past is the raw material of the future.

One might further posit that the Far Future is a domain of almost pure mind, just as the most distant past is the domain of pure matter. But at the same time, in a panpsychist view, matter is imbued with mind from the very beginning: every particle or monad has a bit of consciousness it. The simplest particles, a single bit ... but when many bits combine, their little minds can move closer to the divine. Evolution becomes the process by which the vehicles for mind are improved over time, with the first priorities of cosmic evolution being the creation of appropriate material (elements, chemicals), followed by habitats (planets, biospheres), followed by bodies. Evolution is the minds of matter being taught the nature of mind through their individual and collective experiences within the Mind of Nature.

Another thought: perhaps the emergence of life is coordinated across vast stretches of space? Are biospheres springing into existence across the universe, in great profusion, more or less simultaneously (by which I mean +- a few hundred million years or so, although it could be even more synchronized than that)? This isn't entirely unreasonable within the conventional picture of cosmic evolution, as heavy element formation took several billion years on its own, following which planets in galactic and stellar habitable zones would take a few billion years to evolve sufficiently complex life for conscious life to emerge. Perhaps we are in a transitional cosmic phase, one in which conscious life in general is just beginning to wake up, but not yet to make its presence readily apparent throughout the cosmos.

Of course, if mind is in some way intimately connected to teleology, if backwards-causation (as well as backwards-perception, which is more obvious) is its principal mode of operation, then time travel becomes something you have to wonder about when discussing beings whose primary residence is the far future, and what their motives might be ... after all, if the Far Future is already guiding the development of the cosmos, and has been since the beginning, why should one want to intervene directly in the past? To assist the cosmos in its becoming? Or to divert its development for the purpose of enrichment? There's no reason to suppose that colonialism is dead amongst the most advanced species. UFOs and such make perfect sense in this context. It almost goes without saying that the C's are readily explained: communications with oneself in the future would be expected (through a great deal of static, unless one is suitably prepared ... although 'short-range' communications, over a few seconds say, could be practically ubiquitous). I'll be surprised if Nagel goes into such topics as UFOs (does he?) ... just pointing out how such phenomena seem implicit in the idea that mind exists, and is directly connected to teleology.
 

Laura

Administrator
Administrator
Moderator
FOTCM Member
The teleological implications suggest to me that the future, in some way, acts as an "attractor". If we are talking monism here, that monism has to divide at some point into something like positive and negative and perhaps that is a cosmic thing and everything "happens" because the two "halves" are drawn to one another? Like charge separation, current flowing to a point of contact potential difference.

Does that make any sense?
 
Top Bottom