Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Thomas Nagel on intelligibility, consciousness, mind, and theism

In his 2012 book Mind and Cosmos, philosopher Thomas Nagel has questioned the materialist, reductionist, neo-Darwinian conception of nature, concluding that it is “almost certainly false.” He considers the intelligent design controversy through an examination of the mind-body problem, constitutive accounts of consciousness (reductive or emergent), and accounts of the historical origin of consciousness (causal or teleological) as descriptions and explanations of intelligibility. Consciousness, he argues, presents a problem for evolutionary reductionism. His argument from “objective idealism” suggests a teleological causality. My interest in Nagel's argument is the suggestion that the original Aristotelian teleology, which is without theistic intention, has natural values as the explanatory end. To me this suggests astrology, which has a natural framework of values.  I can only briefly summarize Nagel's arguments here with some key passages, cited by page numbers, to which I've added a few thoughts. 

“The great advances in the physical and biological sciences were made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world. This has permitted a quantitative understanding of the world, expressed in timeless, mathematically formulated physical laws. But at some point it will be necessary to make a new start on a more comprehensive understanding that includes the mind.” (8)

“In the natural sciences as they have developed since the seventeenth century, the assumption of intelligibility has led to extraordinary discoveries, confirmed by prediction and experiment, of a hidden natural order that cannot be observed by human perception alone. Without the assumption of an intelligible underlying order, which long antedates the scientific revolution, these discoveries could not have been made.” (16)

“The intelligibility of the world is no accident. Mind, in this view, is doubly related to the natural order. 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.” (17)

Edmund Husserl said "to like is intrinsically to be conscious." To me, this suggests that conscious liking, as opposed to being selfish and driven, is forward looking and purposeful because it is the basis of choosing and consciousness. The mind is occupied by likes and dislikes and this suggests intelligible values. I think this is where Nagel is going in his argument. Consciousness is a problem for directionless physical law.

Nagel postulates that the opposite of materialism is “the position that mind, rather than physical laws, provides the fundamental level of explanation of everything, including the explanation of the basic and universal physical laws themselves. This view is familiarly expressed as theism. … theism makes physical law a consequence of mind. … theism interprets intelligibility ultimately in terms of intention or purpose.” (21) Nagel does not agree with theism.  

“Theism embraces that conclusion [a 'mentalistic or even a normative form of understanding'] by attributing the mental phenomena found within the world to the working of a comprehensive mental source, of which they are miniature versions.” (22)

[In evolutionary terms] “Teleological laws would assign higher probability to steps on paths in state space that have a higher 'velocity' toward certain outcomes. They would be laws of the self-organization of matter, essentially—or of whatever is more basic than mater.” (93) This intriguing postulation suggests something out of quantum physics, a sort of teleological boson having probability states that impart values as consciousness. Saying it seems to revert to reductionism.

The orthodox received view in evolutionary biology is that natural selection is blind to the future. It is progressive only "locally" in terms of better adaptation of an organism to its immediate ecological environment. In place of "chance, creationism, and directionless physical law," Nagel argues for "natural teleology," an evolutionary view that we perceive as forward looking and purposeful, yet secular rather than deistic or theistic. 

There is a problem that evolutionary reductionism does not explain. Nagel says that “the recent extraordinary discoveries of evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) seems to imply much more system and less chance in the sources of genetic variation than had formerly been supposed. But such facts would also have to be explained ultimately by physical principles in a reductionist theory.” (48) I believe Nagel is referring to calculations that suggest there could not have been enough chance variation over the past three billion years to provide a basis for the “single long process of evolutionary descent” that we observe in the natural record. This observation is akin to Hubble finding that the universe is expanding.

To Nagel, intentions of mind are not a part of the explanation. Rather, he suggests that teleology is restricted by organizing scales of values. “I believe that teleology is a naturalistic alternative [to explain evolution] that is distinct from all three of the other candidate explanations: chance, creationism, and directionless physical law... [this] teleology would have to be restrictive in what it makes likely, but without depending on intentions or motives. This would probably have to involve some conception of an increase in value through the expanded possibilities provided by the higher forms of organization toward which nature tends; not just any outcome could qualify as the telos. That would make value an explanatory end, but not one that is realized through the purposes or intentions of an agent. Teleology means that in addition to physical law of the familiar kind, there are other laws of nature that are ‘biased toward the marvelous.’” (91-92)

Nagel does in fact associate his teleology with the original Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention. (93) Yet his thinking does not go very far beyond Aristotle. He does not explain the organizing values that expand possibilities presumed to limit teleology and the tendencies of nature other than to suggest that they are laws on a par with physical laws. Nor does he address the current theories of “self-organization” (e.g. Stuart Kauffman and the Santa Fe Institute). This is disappointing in that astrology contains a well defined set of organizational values, the zodiacal signs, and it would be interesting to compare. 

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