Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Nagel ado

I've now read Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, and, frankly, I don't see what all the fuss is about.

Nagel's argument goes something like this: Consciousness cannot be explained within the current evolutionary physio-chemical paradigm –- that is, consciousness is irreducible within the context of contemporary science. Therefore, a new paradigm is required, one admitting an irreducible cosmic consciousness, a natural teleological principle that guides and informs nature.

Nagel's "proof" of the irreducible nature of consciousness is unconvincing. His language betrays him. The book is replete with "I believe" and "it seems to me." His argument comes down to this: I do not believe consciousness can be explained within the current framework of science, therefore it can't. This is what Dawkins has called "the argument from personal incredulity."

"That, at any rate, is my ungrounded intellectual preference," writes Nagel, giving the game away.

Consciousness may or may not be reducible. We'll wait and see. If Nagel wants to caution the Dawkins/Dennett crowd against hubris, well and good. But he claims more than that, and doesn't deliver.

Not only does he fail to demonstrate the incompleteness of the current scientific paradigm, he is unable to provide an alternative theory -- which he admits is necessary -- other than a vague idea of cosmic consciousness with zero explanatory power. "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," he writes. And this he manifestly doesn't do.

To say, as his subtitle states, that the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature "is almost certainly false" is a bridge too far. That it might be incomplete, in the sense that the Newtonian conception of nature was incomplete, is a given that few would dispute. No need to write a book about that. Nagel's 128 pages of wishful supposings add less to our reliable knowledge of nature than any random paragraph in the weekly journals Science and Nature.

So far, the reducibility or irreducibility of consciousness is an open question. Ockham's razor anoints reducibility as the default assumption. Excessive fervor on one side of the question or the other is more a product of a priori ideology than of logical or empirical proof.

An historical analogue tomorrow.