As I’ve mentioned before, the respected philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel has joined the ranks of Darwin-dissers with the publication of his new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. I am eager to read this, but haven’t yet had a chance because I’m travelling and reading Sophisticated Theology™ (this book may qualify in that genre).
Nagel has always evinced a sympathy for Intelligent Design creationism, and in fact he chose Stephen Meyer’s ID book Signature in the Cell as his “book of the year” in the respected Times Literary Supplement (read the letters following Nagel’s endorsement at the link). But Nagel is no slouch academically, and so it’s very surprising that he joins his colleague Jerry Fodor in bashing Darwin at book length.
In the latest issue of The Nation, Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg review Nagel’s new book. Their verdict isn’t pretty.
Nagel’s is the latest in what has become a small cottage industry involving a handful of prominent senior philosophers expressing skepticism about aspects of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Some, like the overtly Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, have made a career of dialectical ingenuity in support of the rationality of religious faith. Others, such as Jerry Fodor, are avowed atheists like Nagel, and have only tried to raise challenges to discrete aspects of evolutionary explanations for biological phenomena. Plantinga’s influence has largely been limited to other religious believers, while Fodor’s challenge was exposed rather quickly by philosophers as trading on confusions (even Nagel disowns it in a footnote). Nagel now enters the fray with a far-reaching broadside against Darwin and materialism worthy of the true-believing Plantinga (whom Nagel cites favorably). We suspect that philosophers—even philosophers sympathetic to some of Nagel’s concerns—will be disappointed by the actual quality of the argument.
Nagel not only attacks evolution and materialism, but, after touting Stephen Meyer, now gives encomiums to the unctuous Alvin Plantinga! One wonders if Nagel is losing his critical abilities, or simply is plagued by a nagging desire to go to church.
Weisberg and Leiter do agree, though, with one of Nagel’s beefs—the notion that reductionism is overrated:
Nagel opposes two main components of the “materialist” view inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The first is what we will call theoretical reductionism, the view that there is an order of priority among the sciences, with all theories ultimately derivable from physics and all phenomena ultimately explicable in physical terms. We believe, along with most philosophers, that Nagel is right to reject theoretical reductionism, because the sciences have not progressed in a way consistent with it. We have not witnessed the reduction of psychology to biology, biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics, but rather the proliferation of fields like neuroscience and evolutionary biology that explain psychological and biological phenomena in terms unrecognizable by physics. As the philosopher of biology Philip Kitcher pointed out some thirty years ago, even classical genetics has not been fully reduced to molecular genetics, and that reduction would have been wholly within one field. We simply do not see any serious attempts to reduce all the “higher” sciences to the laws of physics.
Here all three academics (Weisberg is a philosopher; Leiter a professor of law) make a mistake: the view that all sciences are in principle reducible to the laws of physics, which is materialism, is not identical to an attempt to reduce all sciences to physics. The former must be true unless you’re religious, while the latter is a tactical problem that will be solved to some degree as we understand more about physics and biology, but is unlikely in our lifetime to give a complete explanation for higher-level phenomena. Remember, though, that “emergent phenomena” must be consistent with the laws of physics, even those laws may not be useful for explaining things like natural selection.
And, of course, more and more phenomena are being explained by physics. That’s what physical chemistry is all about, and even some aspects of natural selection (e.g., why eyes and ears evolved as they do) depend on knowing principles of physics.
But never mind. Nagel’s target appears to be naturalism, and his method similar to that of Plantinga, who believes that natural selection could never have given humans the ability to seek out and discover truths about nature:
The second component of the thesis Nagel opposes is what we will call naturalism, the view that features of our world—including “consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value”—can ultimately be accounted for in terms of the natural processes described by the various sciences (whether or not they are ever “reduced” to physics). Nagel’s arguments here are aimed at a more substantial target, although he gives us few specifics about the kind of naturalism he opposes. He does characterize it as the attempt to explain everything “at the most basic level by the physical sciences, extended to include biology,” and the one named proponent of this view is the philosopher Daniel Dennett. Although Dennett would not characterize his project as trying to explain everything at the “most basic level,” he does aim to show that phenomena such as consciousness, purpose and thought find a natural home in a picture of human beings inspired by Darwin. In the absence of any clearer statement of the argument, we will assume that this is the so-called “neo-Darwinian” picture that Nagel opposes.
One would assume that Nagel must be thoroughly acquainted with the evolutionary literature to make such a claim, but apparently he’s not near as savvy about our field as is Dennett:
Defending such a sweeping claim might seem to require a detailed engagement with the relevant science, yet in a striking admission early on, Nagel reveals that his book “is just the opinion of a layman who reads widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the nonspecialist.” And a recurring objection to what he learned from his layman’s reading of popular science writing is that much science “flies in the face of common sense,” that it is inconsistent with “evident facts about ourselves, that it “require[s] us to deny the obvious,” and so on.
The authors add dryly:
This style of argument does not, alas, have a promising history.
. . and then the reviewers make a point that resonates deeply with me: materialism and naturalism need no a priori justification, but are justified by their fruits:
Happily, Nagel does not attempt to repudiate the Copernican revolution in astronomy, despite its hostility to common sense. But he displays none of the same humility when it comes to his preferred claims of common sense—the kind of humility that nearly 400 years of nonevident yet true scientific discoveries should engender. Are we really supposed to abandon a massively successful scientific research program because Nagel finds some scientific claims hard to square with what he thinks is obvious and “undeniable,” such as his confidence that his “clearest moral…reasonings are objectively valid”?
In support of his skepticism, Nagel writes: “The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle’s day.” This seems to us perhaps the most startling sentence in all of Mind and Cosmos. Epistemic humility—the recognition that we could be wrong—is a virtue in science as it is in daily life, but surely we have some reason for thinking, some four centuries after the start of the scientific revolution, that Aristotle was on the wrong track and that we are not, or at least not yet. Our reasons for thinking this are obvious and uncontroversial: mechanistic explanations and an abandonment of supernatural causality proved enormously fruitful in expanding our ability to predict and control the world around us. The fruits of the scientific revolution, though at odds with common sense, allow us to send probes to Mars and to understand why washing our hands prevents the spread of disease. We may, of course, be wrong in having abandoned teleology and the supernatural as our primary tools for understanding and explaining the natural world, but the fact that “common sense” conflicts with a layman’s reading of popular science writing is not a good reason for thinking so.
I can’t resist adding this, though (and I do realize I’m quoting a lot of the piece), for the authors of the review have done a good job:
Philosophical naturalists often appeal to the metaphor of “Neurath’s Boat,” named after the philosopher who developed it. Our situation as inquirers trying to understand the world around us, according to Neurath, is like that of sailors who must rebuild their ship while at sea. These sailors do not have the option of abandoning the ship and rebuilding a new one from scratch. They must, instead, try to rebuild it piecemeal, all the time staying afloat on other parts of the ship on which they continue to depend. In epistemological terms, we are also “at sea”: we cannot abandon all the knowledge about the world we have acquired from the sciences and then ask what we really know or what is really rational. The sciences that have worked so well for us are precisely our benchmark for what we know and what is rational; they’re the things that are keeping us “afloat.” Extending this metaphor, we can say that Nagel is the sailor who says, “I know the ideal form a ship should take—it is intuitively obvious, I am confident in it—so let us jump into the ocean and start building it from scratch.”
I won’t dissect the rest of the review, or Nagel’s arguments as expressed therein, but let me add that Nagel fleshes out Plantinga’s arguments by claiming that there are indeed moral truths (if you object to Sam Harris, you must also object to Nagel), and that natural selection was impotent at giving us the ability to see them. Where do they come from, then? Nagel apparently has no idea.
I don’t think there are objective moral truths, though morality seems to be grounded on certain principles that most humans take to be true (i.e. increasing well-being is good), and it’s indubitably true that “morality” is not completely coded in our genes anyway. How could it be if those so-called “truths” have changed so drastically in the last few centuries?
In the end, Nagel calls for a revival of teleological thinking. He’s not a believer, so I’m not sure exactly what the “driving force” of biological diversity is supposed to be. Nor am I sure what has happened to Nagel, for he’s throwing over one of the best-established theories in science for some teleological process that he can only intuit. He appears to have caught some virus from Jerry Fodor, and if other philosophers don’t condemn Nagel’s mushy thinking, I’ll have lost a lot of respect for philosophy. For crying out loud, any average biologist can think harder about this problem than the vaunted philosopher Nagel!
Finally, here is Leiter and Weisberg’s summary of the book:
We conclude with a comment about truth in advertising. Nagel’s arguments against reductionism are quixotic, and his arguments against naturalism are unconvincing. He aspires to develop “rival alternative conceptions” to what he calls the materialist neo-Darwinian worldview, yet he never clearly articulates this rival conception, nor does he give us any reason to think that “the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” Mind and Cosmos is certainly an apt title for Nagel’s philosophical meditations, but his subtitle—”Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”—is highly misleading. Nagel, by his own admission, relies only on popular science writing and brings to bear idiosyncratic and often outdated views about a whole host of issues, from the objectivity of moral truth to the nature of explanation. No one could possibly think he has shown that a massively successful scientific research program like the one inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “is almost certainly false.” The subtitle seems intended to market the book to evolution deniers, intelligent-design acolytes, religious fanatics and others who are not really interested in the substantive scientific and philosophical issues. Even a philosopher sympathetic to Nagel’s worries about the naturalistic worldview would not claim this volume comes close to living up to that subtitle. Its only effect will be to make the book an instrument of mischief.
Indeed: the Discovery Institute will be all over this one like ugly on a frog.
131 thoughts on “Philosopher Thomas Nagel goes the way of Alvin Plantinga, disses evolution”
Nagel, welcome to Plato’s Cave.
I haven’t read the book yet, but from reading about it elsewhere it seems that he is arguing in favor of panpsychism (and against theism)– that mind is a basic element of the universe (matter) itself, and not an emergent phenomenon (nor the product of any sort of ‘creation’). Therefore, everything – microbes, trees, even inanimate objects such as rocks – has an element of mind, whatever that is exactly. This is why there is order in the universe, and the reason that not only life but minds, consciousness, rationality, etc., can be produced or result from inanimate matter.
Hold on a second. I’m not sure if I should say “you” or “him” (Nagel), but in any case somebody left out the biggest most important part of this hypothesis! How in the heck does everything having some “element of mind” necessarily lead to an “ordered universe”? Cause that sure as hell is not self evident. These sorts of claims always seem to make these gigantic leaps (of faith?) like that and hope that no one will ask questions. I can never tell if the person making such claims really thinks it is self evident that one necessarily leads to the other, or if they know better.
And the next question is, of course, do you (or Nagel) have any good reason (e.g. sound evidence) to think that any of that could be accurate?
I’m not a panpsychist myself, so I’m not sure how it all works – your questions are the same ones I would have. Per Myron’s comment below, it appears he is just trying to find plausible nontheistic explanations for mind that are currently unavailable under naturalism.
!st someone has to prove that “mind” exists, then that it is predictive of anything other than crackpot ideas.
The physicist John Wheeler’s “It from bit” idea  is like this, an attempt to take the observer dependence in quantum mechanics seriously and suggest some kind of weird self-creating universe, where the existence of “stuff” depends on observers even as the existence observers depend on the existence of “stuff”. Obviously, it is counter-intuitive and, one thinks, almost certainly wrong. However, after struggling with quantum mechanics for awhile all sorts of strange and implausible ideas start to sound less strange. After a morning contemplating the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, one is perhaps sufficiently rattled to spend the afternoon contemplating “It from bit”.
Since information is relative to a system (compare Shannon information with Kolmogorov entropy), there is no physical reality to “a bit”. Wheeler trivially overreached in my opinion.
This is like philosophers “truth” values, they too are relative the universe depending on what definitions they propose.
I’ll stick with observational facts based on our absolute reality, thank you. They may be erroneous, they may have uncertainty, they may be initially revisionable, et cetera. But we see that they eventually converge on a robust core.
I agree. It is just another interesting example of someone coming up with an idea of this sort.
Tobjörn: “I’ll stick with observational facts based on our absolute reality.”
You lucky you! You have the access to the absolute!
This is alas provably wrong, and has been known to be such since at least 1967.
Please illuminate us then.
Not that I’m advocating Wheeler’s crazy idea, it is to me more of a fun exercise in mental contortions, on the order of a Borges story, than a serious idea about the world. And I don’t much doubt that it is provably wrong, but still, such a flat assertion cries out for details, especially since the supposed proof precedes the idea by several decades.
In the book, Nagel takes panpsychism seriously as a possible alternative to emergentism but he doesn’t endorse it.
“In the previous chapter I explored the possibility of a reductive account of
consciousness, based on some form of universal monism or panpsychism. This is
modeled on the physical reductionism encouraged by molecular biology, but with an
expanded metaphysical basis, in which the physical and the mental are ontologically
inseparable. Although it would be a radical departure from the reigning materialist view of nature, the monism required for a reductive but not physically reductionist account of consciousness seems at least conceivable. In answer to the constitutive question, the idea that a complex subject of consciousness might be built up out of minimal protomental elements that are somehow unified simultaneously into an organism and a self has enough potential to merit consideration. Considered as an alternative to an equally speculative emergence of consciousness at high levels of physical organization, it seems relatively credible, in spite of serious problems about the mental part-whole relationship.”
(Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. pp. 86-7)
That sounds very similar to the Buddhist idea that all phenomena are merely the result of psychic activity, that there is no objective reality behind our experiences.
PS: It looks like the philosophers and theologians are increasingly pissed at the skeptics for daring to prick holes in their balloons and thereby demonstrate that there’s nothing inside. (So to speak.)
See: “The Imminent Demise of Evolution: The Longest Running Falsehood in Creationism”
Catalogues claims since 1825 that Evolution will be discredited in their near future. This appears to be just the latest in a vast series.
The color scheme’s awful, but the content is entertaining.
Back in May 2006 Nagel took part in a Templeton Foundation Org. sponsored symposium that asked the question “What is our Knowledge of the Human Being?”
It formed part of The Humble Approach Initiative
Thus an exercise that’s intended to elevate us above nature is spun as an exercise in humility
These bashes are very extravagant ~ a participant doesn’t reach into his/her pocket for anything & I expect one gets a fee too. This must make a deep impression on the more worldly attendees…
To repeat what I wrote in August:- I think every academic with half a book in them is well aware by now of the Templeton magic money machine. It has never been more profitable to jump on the woo bandwagon & take a stab at the green stuff
I should think especially in the otherwise impoverished market for philosophers.
Humility. That’s funny. I guess when you’re losing the argument, calling for universal humility is one way to try to soften the blow. I think we have all experienced the awesome humility of believers.
Frogs aren’t ugly!
My thought exactly!
The green tree frogs I get at my place in northern NSW Australia are beautiful creatures.
I sometimes find them hiding in the tailgate of my car and have to be very careful I don’t squish them so I can take them back home and put them on a tree.
Brilliant, both the review and commentary on the review.
It was Nagel who gave a very favorable review to Plantinga’s book in the New York Review of Books.
The DiscoTute already has two Nagel-related articles up, both dated October 10th
Casey Luskin :- “More from Thomas Nagel on Neo-Darwinian Evolution and the Chemical Origin of Life”
Anon** :- “Nagel’s ID-Friendly Mind and Cosmos Takes Its First Hit”
** “Anon” I seem to remember is usually that woman Canadian journalist ID’er who’s name escapes me at the moment
Bingo ~ the fundamentalist Catholic ID’er. Though I think I was too kind referring to her as a journalist.
Actually I feel she may not be “anon” after all because she normally ‘writes’ at greater [rambling] length. Not that it matters, but I’m confusing the DiscoTute online rag with the Uncommon Descent online rag where she often ‘writes’ under the byline “News”
Nagel’s been doing this kind of thing for years; see my commentary on what he wrote (in a public policy journal!) in 2008:
Nonsense from Nagel, and the myth of “common sense”…
“It is difficult to see how one could cram a larger number of logical errors into so small a space.”
Two not-so-recent Nagel-related DiscoTute articles [probably with a liberal dash of quote-mine sauce]
August 22nd 2012
John G. West :- Noted Atheist Philosopher Thomas Nagel: “Defenders of Intelligent Design Deserve Our Gratitude”
September 2nd 2008
Edward Sisson :- Prominent Atheist Professor of Law and Philosophy Thomas Nagel Calls Intelligent Design Scientific and Constitutional to “Mention” in Science Classes
As for “higher-level phenomena”:
“Reality, levels of. The old conception of reality as hierarchical, embodied in the Great Chain of Being, re-emerged, secularized and purged of supernatural elements, in the
late twentieth century. The world comprises not merely levels of complexity and levels of description, but levels of being: higher-level items depend on, but remain distinct from, items at lower levels. At the most basic level (if there is a most basic level) is the world described by physics. Arrangements of entities at this level ‘realize’ higher-level entities, and arrangements of these realize entities at still higher levels. The economy of Saskatchewan—a very high-level entity—is realized by the inhabitants of Saskatchewan, relations they bear to one another and to persons and institutions elsewhere. Persons and institutions are themselves realized by complex arrangements of psychological, biological, and inorganic entities. These in turn have still lower-level realizers.
Proponents of levels point to the ‘irreducibility’ of descriptions of and laws governing higher-level items. This encourages a picture of these higher-level items as ‘floating above’ their lower-level supports. Higher-level goings-on are thought to be governed by higher-level laws
discoverable by the special sciences.
The nature of the realizing relation remains something of a mystery. Supervenience is occasionally invoked, but this is to re-label the relation, not to explain it. Some have doubted the coherence of levels: if higher-level entities depend on, but are distinct from, entities at lower levels, how could something at a higher level have a higher-level effect except by bringing about a lower-level change? Such ‘downward’ causation threatens the idea that the fundamental physical level constitutes a closed system governed
by inviolable laws.
One possibility is that philosophers have conflated the innocuous idea that ways of describing and explaining the world exhibit a hierarchical structure with the much less innocuous idea that corresponding to each of these ways is a level of being. Moves of this kind have a chequered philosophical pedigree. They express the remarkable idea that we can ‘read off’ the structure of reality from the structure of the language we use to describe reality. Perhaps we can get by with one complex world capable of being described in endless ways depending on our interests and the level of detail we hope to comprehend.”
(“Levels of Reality,” by John Heil. In The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 2nd ed., edited by Ted Honderich, 790. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.)
Philosophers such as John Heil and Charlie Martin convincingly defend the view that there are no (higher) levels of being/existence/reality but only levels of conceptualizing/describing/explaining the one all-encompassing (level of) reality. For example, human organisms are nothing over and above systems of physical particles: they are (identical with) them, so that they cannot exist at a level higher than that at which their basic elements exist.
“When suitably formulated, the compositional model expresses the thought that (a) there are no levels of being (or, rather, there is only one level of ultimate constituents), although there are levels of description and explanation; and (b) the constituents in all of their interrelatednesses, interreactivities, and dispositions for these with one another and with whatever might be external, in all of their varying degrees of stability, do fully constitute and together are the whole (admitting some additions, subtractions, and alterations of properties and configuration suitable for being that kind of whole). Nothing less than this will do as a compositional model.”
(Martin, C. B. The Mind in Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. pp. 38-9)
Barasab Nicolescu, a quantum physic researcher,also came with his theory about levels of reality. It doesn’t lead to the same conclusion as described above…
Transdisciplinary Ontology –
Multiple Levels of Reality and the Hidden Third
Category theory enabled Nicolescu (2006b, 2010) to conceive Reality as comprising many different levels. He proposed that it is essential to seek multiple perspectives on any human problem (or set of human problems) because the intent is to integrate many levels of truth while generating new knowledge. Succinctly, TD ontology respects the complex and dynamic relationships among at least 10 different realities organized along three Levels of Reality: (a) the internal world of humans, where consciousness flows – the TD-Subject (comprising political, social, historical, and individual realities); (b) the external world of humans where information flows – the TD-Object (comprising environmental, economic, and cosmic/planetary realities); and (c) the Hidden Third. Peoples’ experiences, interpretations, descriptions, representations, images, and formulas meet on this third level. Three realities exist in this intuitive zone of non-resistance, this mediated interface: culture and art, religions, and spiritualities. Together, the three Levels of Reality form TD ontology (see Figure 1).
Hmm… I think you’re confusing the map for the territory. But neither Nicolescu nor McGregor is helping.
I’d agree that it is helpful to take a transdisciplinary approach to seek an understanding of the world that is unlikely to emerge from siloed disciplinary research. That, after all, was the foundation of David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality, which, regular readers here may recall, I greatly admire.
But these “levels” of reality aren’t themselves distinct; that’s a pomo-type conceit (to which I say, “Poop!”). It is more accurate, I think, to think of them as “lenses”, different ways of viewing aspects of a single indivisible reality.
PS. Still, it makes a change from uncreated consciousness! 😀
I agree with you on this… 🙂
“But these “levels” of reality aren’t themselves distinct”.
Nicolescu’s approach comes from his experimentations with quantum physics and the teaching of his philosopher friend Lupasco – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stéphane_Lupasco -who came with the theory of the middle third included. That middle third is in contradiction with the law of non-contradiction… but it is the “corridor” that sticks together the levels of reality.
Nicolescu’s book “What is reality” is really interesting.
I don’t think you do… “That middle third is in contradiction with the law of non-contradiction… but it is the ‘corridor’ that sticks together the levels of reality” makes absolutely no sense in my view.
The agreement was about the change of the subject, not about the rest..
“The special sciences are autonomous and irreducible in the sense that taxonomies they deploy do not map smoothly onto taxonomies deployed by ‘lower-level’ sciences. These points extend beyond psychology to the special sciences generally. But all this is compatible with the idea that truthmakers for judgements couched in a vocabulary borrowed from the special sciences answer as well to judgements expressed in the vocabulary of fundamental physics.
One lesson to be learned here is that anti-reductionism need not, and in fact ought not, to be seen as a thesis concerning properties or families of properties, but as a claim about predicates, or categories, or taxonomies. The anti-reductionist denies that every truth about the universe, every ‘lawlike generalization’, is expressible in the vocabulary of fundamental physics. Suppose this is so. The question is, to what sort of ontology does this commit us? My answer is that it commits us to no particular ontology. It certainly does not commit us to a hierarchical ontology of states and properties, distinct levels of being.”
(Heil, John. The Universe As We Find It. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. p. 191)
I too like Heil on these issues, though some of the above puts me on a little bit of caution. My reworking of his thoughts on emergence and non-reductionism, from his Philosophy of Mind text:
Let us say we have a rather empty universe with nothing but single particles bouncing off each other in a very uniform way. The science of it is very simple. But then two particles, A and Z, because of the accidents of history, after many years of never touching, finally bump into each. But these two particles do that which two particles have never done before, they latch onto each other. A new “property” or behavior, though making perfect logical sense from the structure of these two particles, has now arisen that has caused many more new properties and new behaviors as the other particles are now bumping into this combination particle.
On this idea, something has emerged, in that it had not been seen before, and it does have radically different properties than what was recorded before. However, the structure of the new dual-particle can be readily assessed by the micro-structures of particles A and Z. If a property has arisen that was not seen before, it is a fundamental property that has only become instantiated because a certain relation has finally taken shape.
Anyways, that was how I read him and reworked his thought experiment, hopefully somewhat faithfully.
With that presented, I do not mean to state nor do I think that life and human life presents some radical emergence of many properties that had hitherto been seen. A plausible story about the accident of chemicals coalescing and then fundamental processes of evolution denies, to me, the account that many fundamental properties finally emerged on planet Earth (and possibly elsewhere). If some property such as consciousness has been brought into first existence, it is reducible or structured by the fundamental base facts about the world (~of evolution finally putting particles into a certain brainy structure).
Getting back into philosophy of mind, many singular behaviors that humans do with consciousness are behaviors that on the face of it could be done without consciousness, e.g., making the appropriate chess move. I am not epiphenomenal about consciousness and I am fine with saying it emerged here on earth in the time of animals (it seems wrong to posit it elsewhere or in the presumed Before Time). Whatever properties that it has realized are not radically different than most the rest of what we see; for example our consciousness does not “see” into the future, in an absolute sense.
According to Heil’s ontology as described in his new book (The Universe As We Find It, OUP 2012), the only real substances are simple (in the sense of lacking substantial proper parts) substances (not necessarily point-sized corpuscles), and the only real properties are the perfectly natural properties (in David Lewis’s sense) of those simples. Heil claims that there are neither complex substances nor complex (structural) properties. For him, complex objects such as biological organisms are but quasi-substances and their properties are quasi-properties, “properties by courtesy”. So there isn’t really such a phenomenon as property emergence unless there appear new emergent propertied substances However, he is not an antirealist or mereological nihilist about complex objects such as cats and trees; he only denies that they are anything over and above mereological fusions of interrelated and interacting simple substances. The only level of reality is the level at which those simple substances exist and act. (Note that Heil considers it possible that there is only one real substance, as Spinoza famously believed: spacetime or an ur-field.)
Ah. Sounds good. I will check the book out.
It’s highly recommendable! Heil’s new book is contemporary naturalistic metaphysics/ontology at its best: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199596201.do
I question anyone who thinks of spacetime as a substance. At the very least this is extraordinarily contentious, at the worst outright wrongheaded. One should at *least* do another whole book convincing us that relationalism and other nonsubstantivist views in the philosophy of space and time are wrong.
Moreover, denying emergence is pretty weird. What is interesting is that (say) an electron is never without its surrounding field, another sort of entity. Consequently from what we can tell there are always at least two things if the “first” of them is a charged particle, for example.
So how does Teil propose to test all this.
Or is he acknowledging that it is mere unsubstantiated speculation, never to become anything useful?
In other news, in rewiring my home I decided not to use any metallic components, since it was obvious to me that my blueprint for the home was made entirely of paper. My plan for using paper wiring didn’t work out so well, so I had to go back to the drawing board.
I’m thinking maybe my blueprint needs to be made out of copper, but I’m going to have to think on this a bit, as I’m not so keen on replacing all my framing, shingles, doors and cabinetry.
Exactly. How can you build up a Consciousness unless you have some consciousness to build it with?
The volume of irritating noise generated by those who attack science appears to be inversely proportial to the decline in their relevance.
Are we witnessing the emergence of a new phenomenon the “Sophisticated” Philosopher ?
oops pressed post by mistake.
The volume of irritating noise generated by those who attack science appears to be inversely proportial to the relevance of their beliefs./methodology
Are we witnessing the emergence of a new phenomenon the “Sophisticated” Philosopher ?
…and people wonder why I observe that philosophy is worthless. And, yes — that’s a well-evidenced empirical observation.
Pro tip: if you’re going to proclaim a brilliant, radical new revolution in a well-established scientific field, do so from an empirical footing, not a philosophical one. The planets didn’t give a damn about philosophical objections to their orbits not being perfect circles, and reproducing organisms similarly don’t give a damn about your teleological predilections.
Bonus tip: see if any parts of your brilliant, radical new revolution in a well-established scientific field require or would result in a perpetual motion machine (or other violation of the laws of conservation). If you’re proposing some sort of force / field / realm / whatever that’s not currently part of physics, first have experimental evidence establishing its existence (and, ideally, some of its characteristics).
And, for the amateurs out there: failure to follow those two tips will result in you being ridiculed, one way or another.
Dude, why so angry? I believe you should be more philosophical about what’s empirical. Just stop and think for a minute; you will share my intuition on this one.
But… he IS philosophical!
“Just stop and think for a minute; you will share my intuition on this one.”
Are you unaware of the New Empiricists? They are always strident.
Especially “The Truth Delusion” by Whineberg where he attacks millenniums of philosophy, without having read all of it. It is so unsophisticated.
Meh. It’s mostly boiler-plate anyway, isn’t it?
Ben Goren #15 wrote:
Yes, we share the same philosophical view on this.
I mean the second one, regarding the value of well-evidenced empirical observation. Not that first part.
From some quarters, sure. But from others you will receive praise and acclaim. Heck, you might even be gifted a million dollars!
Ben Goren said:
“…and people wonder why I observe that philosophy is worthless. And, yes — that’s a well-evidenced empirical observation.”
No it is not. “Worthless” is your subjective opinion based on emotion and not in the least bit rational or objective.
“if you’re going to proclaim a brilliant, radical new revolution in a well-established scientific field, do so from an empirical footing, not a philosophical one.”
I’m pretty sure that Nagel isn’t doing that at all. He is not and does not think he is doing science.
From the samples of Nagel’s prose I’ve seen, he’s obviously not doing communication much, either. Not doing anything worth a damn, really.
Your argument “I don’t understand XYZ therefore it can’t be worth anything” is invalid. It is really just a plea based in emotion not reason.
The contrary argument “You fail to understand XYZ therefore XYZ is worth doing” is of course equally invalid. Just to make that clear.
“I don’t understand something therefore I’m going to reject it” is really the worst kind of anti-intellectualism I think there is. This kind of tribalistic chest thumping is really unbecoming. One bit of advice, when you beat your chest, make sure you cup your hands so the other gorillas in the jungle can hear you.
We’re not complaining that we’re too dumb to comprehend Nagel’s overpowering intellect.
We’re pointing out that he’s spewing meaningless bullshit, and doing so in an obfuscatory way designed to fool people into thinking that he’s smarter than he really is.
In short, we’re siccing Alan Sokal on Nagel.
I never said you were too dumb to understand what Nagel was saying. I implied that you are ignorant, not stupid. A condition that is easily corrected by education. I suggest you get some.
And your ignorance is on full display when you attempt to say that Nagel is a postmodernist. That is so laughably bad it’s hard to even know where to start.
“We’re pointing out that he’s spewing meaningless bullshit”
Actually you’ve done no such thing. Ridicule and dismissing out of hand are not arguments. They are emotional reactions. You and most of the commenters on this post are reactionaries and seems to me to share many of the negative qualities that right wing political reactionaries have: epistemic closure, abusive and even violent rhetoric and a tribalistic loyalty to the group.
Respect must be earned — and so, too, must disrespect be earned.
Were Nagel to have made philosophical arguments in favor of a flat earth, the stork theory of human reproduction, or the reality of the Easter Claus; or if he had made philosophical arguments against heliocentricism, sexual human reproduction, or the fantastic origins of easily-identifiable faery tales; then he would be deserving of scorn and ridicule.
One could respectfully educate a child who did such things, but an educated adult such as Nagel? To suggest that we dignify his lunacy with respect is absurd and insulting.
And, yes. Rejecting Evolution is as idiotic as rejecting heliocentricism, and rejecting empiricism in favor of “other ways of knowing” is even worse.
Okay, noen, you’re new here and already your calling regulars names. I don’t allow that, in case you don’t know the rules. Stuff like this is out of line:
You don’t get to call other commenters reactionaries or ignoramuses here.
You are aggressive and showing an arrogance unbecoming for a new commenter. You will apologize to the readers for calling most of them “right wing reactionaries” and to Ben for calling him ignorant, and you will resume a debate about the issues and stop calling other posters names. Otherwise, you’re history on this website.
So your next post will be an apology.
In pontificating on the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection and Random Mutation, Nagel, indeed, doing science, whether he or you thinks so or not.
The problem is, he’s doin’ it rong. Very, very rong.
…which is exactly the empirical evidence whose observation I was referring to. Except for those who engage in disciplines such as ethics and logic that have as much to do with philosophy as organic chemistry has to do with alchemy, all philosophers do is science, and they do it in exactly the same sorts of very worng ways that gets theologians in so much trouble.
Well, those are some pretty bold claims. Care to back those up? Please explain to me how it is that ethics is unrelated to philosophy. That all philosophers do is science. That’s some pretty heady kool-aid you be drinkin’.
This kind of scientific jingoism is really ugly and really does rise to the level of scientism.
Ethics is (or, at least, when properly practiced, it is) an entirely empirical field.
In the case of medical ethics, one would empirically investigate patient outcomes, both in terms of recovery and survival rates and with patient satisfaction surveys.
You’d then look for patterns in the data, and form hypotheses: such-and-such a practice leads to extreme dissatisfaction and poor recovery rates; this other practice improves on both; this other practice has great satisfaction but lousy recovery; and so on.
Next, you’d publish your findings so others can verify and expand upon them.
You’d then either drill down deeper into the data with more targeted investigation or you’d develop an experimental protocol designed to clarify some ambiguity in your earlier research.
Lather, rinse, repeat, as they say.
Notice what’s entirely missing from all of that?
Philosophical trolley-car bullshit.
Besides. Milgram and the Stanford Prison Experiment revealed far more about trolley car bullshit than any philosopher could ever hope to dream to. And, again, those were just small and limited experiments, experiments which accomplished more than an entire lifetime of philosophizing ever will.
“Ethics is (or, at least, when properly practiced, it is) an entirely empirical field.”
FALSE. Even the most cursory investigation reveals just how deeply ignorant that claim is. “Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior”
You’re embarrassing yourself.
Then what the fuck do you think all those institutional review boards are doing all day long?
And if you think that ethics isn’t properly empirical, then kindly explain how my outline outline of what an ethicist should do differs from what you think an ethicist should do.
Doesn’t matter what he thinks he’s doing – he’s making an [deleted ] of himself in sort of the way Ben describes. I point to philosophers who are in essence very general scientists and technologists, and then there are those who ignore science and yet make claims clearly affected by it. This happens much more than one would hope, even today. (part of the more general problem is that in areas like ethics it is largely off-radar, still). However, all that said, I think it is pretty clear that Nagel intends the metascientific consequences we all find so ridiculous.
The idea that what didn’t begin and can’t end has to be subjected to the law of conservation is of course absurd.
And it is also logical that if such an uncreated phenomenon exists, our limited intellect and machines can’t find it…
The contrary would make no sense.
At best, you demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of what the laws of conservation are all about. That’s the most charitable I can be, because your post makes even less sense with any other evaluation.
If you think that the laws of conservation don’t apply to some particular domain, then, by all means, please construct an experiment / apparatus / whatever demonstrating this most remarkable and amazing property you’ve discovered so that the rest of the world may be enlightened and that we may express our gratitude at your enlightenment with basically every Nobel Prize there is.
I’m exactly saying that an uncreated phenomenon can’t be tested scientifically because it can only be a no-thing that our limited intellect, our default mode of grasping can’t see, unless you learn how to go beyond it.
So to think that the “God phenomenon” has to be a closed system who obeys to the laws of conservation is a very good way to not find it…
Does your “uncreated phenomenon” ever interact with the observable universe? Does it ever communicate with humans? Does it ever alter the course of history? Does it ever make its presence known?
Of course it interacts with the universe. It is the process itself. It can’t alter the course of history since it is the history itself. And it communicates with humans because humans communicate between them.
Again, it is hard to see it just like it would be hard for water to wet water.
We are “made” of that no-thing. Consciousness is made of that no-thing.
But our finite perspective on things prevents us to accede to what is beyond our physical/dual mode of grasping. We can escape it, but you have some work to do.
Then it can be observed; and, being observable, it is quantifiable.
And, yet, it is never observed, and all quantifications add up without room for it in the mix.
In short, it is the invisible dragon in your garage whose breath gives off no heat. You’re welcome to sit down and have a nice chat with it over a beer and a toke, but you shouldn’t be surprised when nobody takes you seriously.
Really? I thought the subtitle “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False” looked like it was intended to market the book to the “Spiritual, not religious.” In all its manifestations, the supernatural consists of something mental which cannot ultimately be reduced to or derived from the material. Whiled the Disco Institute may salivate over the idea that “atheist scientist rejects Darwin!” — I think the real target is going to be hit by the title’s slam against the word “material.” The woo-friendly sophisticates who read the Huffington Post and think Deepok Chopra belongs in the “science” section LOVE immersing themselves in “substantive scientific and philosophical issues.” They just do so from the perspective of people who are looking for confirmation of spiritual truths. They are likely buyers.
So, as some perceptive commentaters have pointed out, is the Templeton Foundation.
Nagel and his ilk are the reason philosophy is in such bad odor these days. This is like taking armchair quarterbacking, or backseat driving, and refining it to an exquisitely casuistic and fallacious fine art.
These people apparently really think they can figure out how reality functions by sitting around and thinking about it. No empirical confirmation needed. Just string together one brilliant rationalization after another. Sounds good and scholarly so it must have merit. The only contribution Nagel has made here is as an example of how not to do it.
Such a waste of resources, employing him to come up with such nonsense, and to infect others (students) with it. This bit of philosophy certainly lends credence to the claim that philosophy is of no real use.
“This bit of philosophy certainly lends credence to the claim that philosophy is of no real use.”
Your argument that because Thomas Nagel said things that are questionable therefore philosophy is of no use is an invalid argument because it commits the fallacy of the sweeping generalization. From the fact that one philosopher says things you disagree with it does not follow that all philosophers are worthless. Even if it was true and all philosophers said things that were without merit it *still* would not be true that the discipline of philosophy was without value.
That’s why it’s called the scandal of induction?
Philosophy is without merit because it has no method for self-correction, no way of bringing its “findings” in line with reality.
Two philosophers can both validly practice philosophy and come to radically different conclusions, both of which radically differ from reality…and philosophy has no way of figuring out that anything’s amiss.
Once you stop with the mental masturbation and actually step outside of your ivory cave to see what the world actually looks like — that is, once you abandon philosophy for science — all those problems magically vanish in a puff of observation.
Philosophy is another ‘discipline’ that many of us consider aikin banzo, Hausa for worthless work.
Ben Goren said:
“Philosophy is without merit because it has no method for self-correction, no way of bringing its “findings” in line with reality.”
So a philosophy is without merit if it isn’t the one *you* believe? I don’t think there is a fallacy for an argument that bad.
Philosophy is just people talking about what things mean, what words mean, what it means for something to be “real”, what “free will” even is and so on. Philosophy doesn’t have findings though a broad consensus of opinion can develop.
For example: today I think one can say that the strong AI hypothesis, that consciousness is a computer program, is false and has been refuted by Searl’s Chinese Room thought experiment. I think this serves as a good example because it shows where a lot of scientifically minded people go wrong when trying to interpret what philosophers do. Many of such critics go wrong about the Chinese Room when they think it can’t be right because one person couldn’t follow rules in a book like that in anything like real time or that you would need a vast warehouse for the millions upon millions of instructions needed and are written in the book.
Thought experiments in philosophy are meant to expose the logical underpinnings of the various claims that people make. They are not trying to do science. If there is any single driver in philopsophy today it is that what you say must be logical, rational or “hang together” in some sort of consistent way.
Science doesn’t do that. It isn’t fundamentally about rational debate. It makes use of logic and math but it isn’t about them. Science is about matching statements with the world. Philosophy is about what those statements even mean.
All philosophy is without merit because:
A) it has no way of separating truth from bullshit; and
ii) empirically, all it is is one giant bullshit generator.
Right. Charitably, then, philosophy is nothing more than science fiction minus the plot and the characters and the special effects.
And at least science fiction authors (mostly) know how to tell a good story — philosophers don’t even try to tell a story.
Besides. At least the geeks who argue over the capabilities of starship engines have the good sense to know that all they’re doing is entertaining themselves. Philosophers have the chutzpah to declare that they’re the ones holding the keys to Ultimate Truth. What malarkey!
Bed Goren said:
“All philosophy is without merit because…”
“A” and “ii”?? Really? Our educational system really is in a state of collapse.
(1) Stating your opinion as if it were fact is not really arguing.
(2) Cursing doesn’t make your opinion less of an opinion.
(3) Your strawman that philosophers declare they hold the keys to Ultimate Truth is full of straw.
Philosophy certainly does have a means of separating truth from non-truth. A statement is true if it corresponds with reality. Different epistemological systems have different answers for how true statements are established. Your empiricism is just one of those among others. By the way, Daniel Dennett (I assume at least one philosopher you admire) is *not* an empiricist. He’s a rationalist and disagrees with you very much on some very fundamental issues.
It’s a joke. Laugh.
Oh, the ironing!
May I remind you of your very own definition that you just volunteered?
If determining what it means for something to be real doesn’t constitute the quest for Ultimate Truth, then I don’t know what is. Or are you now reversing your position and conceding that philosophy is incapable of determining what is and isn’t real?
The problem is that not a single one of those “different epistemological systems” has ever had any success.
Wait — that’s not exactly true. They’ve all been supremely successful at separating suckers from their wallets, or at least at securing tenure.
P.S. I can’t be arsed to do your research for you, but I’ll eat my hat if Dennett has ever rejected empiricism or even endorsed some alternative as superior to empiricism. Your claim smells just like the bullshit that the religious like to spew about, for example, Darwin’s deathbed conversion or Einstein’s religiosity. b&
See reply at the bottom.
I can see just where this is going: like the creationists who demand that science produce EVERY transitional fossil before they will even begin to entertain the notion that forms change as new species emerge, Nagel and his “ilk” (I like that term, but prefer, “Evil minions”- Ha!) would demand that science not only explain, but lay out in every detail, exactly how physics determines everything that goes on in the material world: thoughts, emotions, and “morals” included (it’s funny how he seems to accept that the brain operates on a chemical and electrical basis, but says, “hands off my morals”. while being unable to offer any logical or plausible alternative explanation of where that particular mental phenomenon comes from). This is a recycling of the old, “cartoonish” idea about science that, if we just had enough information, we could predict the future at will. To do so, of course, would require a computer larger than the know universe! Nagel and the creationists sit smug behind their impossible demands; it never occurs to them that perhaps THEY need to actually “prove” something.
I’m not sure why but that just cracked me up. I immediately thought of this for some reason and couldn’t stop laughing.
Even then, the answer would probably be “42”.
JAC wrote: “I don’t think there are objective moral truths, though morality seems to be grounded on certain principles that most humans take to be true (i.e. increasing well-being is good), and it’s indubitably true that “morality” is not completely coded in our genes anyway.”
I agree that morality isn’t specifically coded in our genes. It also isn’t coded in some way into the structure of the universe to be discovered the way we discover planets, quasars, isotopes, forces, etc. But I think it’s a mistake to refer to morality as not objective because it isn’t something to be discovered in studying the universe.
We should view morality as an area of human invention similar to laws created by government entitites, rules in etiquette guides, and rules for competitive games. We invent standards of behavior and we make them clear so that we can objectively judge how well standards are achieved. The best moral systems lead to the best human conduct in which societies and individuals flourish. The worst lead to the most misery and injustices that could have been prevented, but were not.
And yes we need to set objective standards for flourishing, misery, and injustice. Cultural relativism applied to ethics fails to take on this task and fails to encourage good conduct. It would be nice and simple if some sort of deity provided us with such official standards as some sort of cosmic referee. Unfortunately, we are stuck with the thorny problem of doing it ourselves. We need to create our own officiating guides to provide objective standards even though it is extremely difficult to do so in ways that satisfy us all regarding all the details.
You are hijacking “objective” & you are using it in a different way to that of say a Christian who believes moral are objective because they come down from on high. Sam Harris pulls the same sleight of hand.
Values are subjective cultural entities that change across time & space. For some people some of the time an idea/ideology will trump any system of so-called objective standards. There isn’t an all encompassing external measure & we must ‘wing it’ down the generations & across cultures.
Frogs feel deeply and objectively that we are undeniably ugly.
Following Deepak Chopfra, if you want to scam the market — just add the word “Cosmos.”
“Frogs Say Humans are Ugly and the Cosmos”
“I Get New Tires for my Car and the Cosmos”
In fact, more and more will just be driven down to physics – not quantum effects however.
This is very kool from Science. Looks like phenotypes may be as much physics of cells vs. selection.
“Physico-Genetic Determinants in the Evolution of Development Stuart A. Newman
Animal bodies and the embryos that generate them exhibit an assortment of stereotypic morphological motifs that first appeared more than half a billion years ago. During development, cells arrange themselves into tissues with interior cavities and multiple layers with immiscible boundaries, containing patterned arrangements of cell types. These tissues go on to elongate, fold, segment, and form appendages. Their motifs are similar to the outcomes of physical processes generic to condensed, chemically excitable, viscoelastic materials, although the embryonic mechanisms that generate them are typically much more complex. I propose that the origins of animal development lay in the mobilization of physical organizational effects that resulted when certain gene products of single-celled ancestors came to operate on the spatial scale of multicellular aggregates.”
No need to read article, just listen to podcast…and the Cosmos.
I am all for everything being physics.
“…Plantinga, who believes that natural selection could never have given humans the ability to seek out and discover truths about nature…”
In other words, evolution would have to produce brutish, unthinking humans, if any at all. I like to think of this as a “philosopher’s crocoduck”. Once again we have non-biologists asserting what evolution can and can’t do. At least it isn’t as crudely done as when asserted by Cameron and Comfort.
But apparently, all the extra polish does is distract them from seeing that they have indeed conjured a crocoduck level assertion.
I’m not sure what is meant with “to reduce all sciences to physics”, but these things are orthogonal to the idea that any phenomena can be reduced to first order effects between objects, secondary effects of effects and so on. That is the naive form of reductionism, I believe.
The other form is obviously wrong.
For a non-scientific example, we can’t even axiomatically derive arithmetics from logic alone. We have Gödel’s theorems that tell us that we have to add infinitely many axioms to complete branches of math. And we know we can describe sensible mathematical questions with definite answers that we can’t prove.
The corresponding empirical example would be deterministic chaos, where we know we can describe sensible physical systems with deterministic pathways that we can’t predict.
Whatever nature is, it is natural (by testing), realist (a well-tested component of all mechanics) and reductionist (by experience). But it is also complex and have systems which we can’t fully predict.
What I personally get a kick out of is the tendency for systems that are theoretically predictable in their simples forms to be the most resistant to prediction in the aggregate and vice-versa.
Billiards is pure Newtonian mechanics. Good luck predicting the location of all the balls after the break.
There might not be anything more predictable than the rate of radioactive decay. Good luck predicting when a particular atom will decay.
It’s almost as if the Cosmos shares my sense of humor….
I think that right there is the big tamale, so to speak. That seems to be the issue that so many Sophisticated Philosophers™, Sophisticated Theologians™, wooists, theists, etc., just can’t come to grips with. Not understanding or accepting that that is the way reality actually is seems to be the root of many of the accusations of scientism, claims that science can’t answer those types of questions, and ideas like “there could be other non materialistic, but not supernatural either, processes that produce these types of phenomena.”
Even more perplexing is the way that ignorance is claimed as a justification for the absurd.
“You yourself admit that you don’t know exactly how life originated on Earth…therefore, a magic man done it!”
It just don’t work like that. You might not know exactly where or when your grandpa was born, but that doesn’t mean that he’s two thousand years old and was born in the Middle East.
I think your reasoning would be less sloppy if you reviewed what exactly Gödel’s proof says. Even adding large cardinal infinities of axioms does not provide completeness; and contrariwise, there are rather small ordinality sets of axioms are sufficient to give language effectively capable of modeling all the usual math that humans play with.
Who cares what a philospher thinks about science? I don’t go to my baker for advice on fixing my waste pipes.
Philosophy is a fun discussion excercise and asks many questions but answers none.
Indeed, that review is great fun to read.
I’d say: it must obviously be true that all phenomena arise from material and physical processes BUT it will surely never be fruitful, desirable or even possible to analyze emergent processes like evolution, population genetics, medieval history or theory of education from the perspective of particle interactions no matter how much we learn.
In that sense, reductionism fails even for us who are certain that materialism is true. The underlying physics are way too complex, and there are much more practical approaches to deal with the emergent processes.
Use emergent processes to study emergent processes, as it were?
What I wanted to say is simply this: HOW will we understand and model, say, kleptomania in terms of physical particles?
You could just as well try to fix your bicycle tire by addressing the problem at the level of neutrons and protons. Obviously all relevant parts ultimately consist of particles and nothing but particles, but the issue is much easier tackled by thinking in terms of “tube”, “hole”, “air” and “rubber patch”. Likewise for the sciences of biology, medicine, archaeology, whatever.
“a handful of prominent senior philosophers”
Emphasis on senior. I guess this is a new analogue for ‘jumping the shark.’
Without judging Nagel’s arguments, which I haven’t read, I’m inclined to agree with him that reductionist “materialism” leaves something to be desired. There is an aspect to the universe — call it emergence or whatever you like — that we do not understand, and to pretend that we understand it, based on our incomplete and inconsistent present-day knowledge of physics. is hubris. The discussions of free will on this website have troubled me. Thanks to Coyne for raising the provocative issue, but I think he’s wrong, although I can’t prove it.
Do you mean that you can’t prove Jerry is wrong or that you can’t prove that you think Jerry is wrong?
& see the link at #32.
Well, it is never too late to aim for a Templeton Foundation millionaire grant. A thousand times easier to get than a Nobel. And a lot of money above the Nobel.
Thales and Strato are ever right; Aristotle went bonkers.
an abandonment of supernatural causality proved enormously fruitful in expanding our ability to predict and control the world around us
What support is there for this view of history as opposed to the view that the scientific revolution involved belief in the principle of the uniformity of causation, which was in turn inspired by the belief that the entire universe had been created “uniformly”, i.e. by one God?
Something had to give the early “revolutionaries” the confidence to embark upon the enterprise in the first place.
What is more, the magnificent achievements of European architecture are to this day testament to Christendom’s “pre-revolutionary” acknowledgement that one must, as St. Bernard advises, “act as if everything depends on us” rather than “supernatural causality”.
Well, one piece to support that the key was non-supernatural uniformity rather than mere uniformity (possibly supernatural) is the difference in trajectories of Enlightenment Europe and Islamic Africa. After the rejection of Ibn Rushd by the latter, their scientific and technological progress stagnated. Uniformity thus seems likely also a necessary but insufficient condition.
(Anticipating one possible objection: the Enlightenment was a Christian movement in much the same way as the Protestant Reformation was a Catholic movement.)
I’m not sure how moral truth is an argument against naturalism (it’s only true insofar as it is useful), but logic/mathematical truth is downright confusing. I don’t see how supernaturalism helps resolve it, but the nature of logical systems is downright fascinating and confusing. In David Deutsch’s book The Fabric Of Reality, in order to put the Turing principle as part of a theory of everything, he needed to invoke the Omega Point. That seems like quite a stretch! There must be a better way…
Logical and mathematical is an argument against certain overly strong forms of naturalism, which I’d call a strawman… position except that I’ve run into people espousing it on occasion. Logic and mathematics are abstractions, developed as precursors to obtain a language for talking about “is” questions. In so far as mathematics includes concepts lacking empirical instantiation (such as the Banach-Tarski sphere dissection), mathematics can be “unnatural”. However, a more moderate “naturalism” may simply admit a philosophical dependence on the validity of the underlying axioms of mathematics, and concepts derivable, and then watch for where the Theologian tries to pull a fast one.
Given mathematics, the next philosophical step for the science-inclined is the problem of induction. This can be resolved by taking as an axiom that experience has some pattern, yielding a theorem formalizing Occam’s Razor and with an algorithm implied which resembles science, providing a quasi-effective resolution of the problem of induction. (Refutation gives an alternative axiom, but seems to lead to a philosophical dead end at Ramsey Theory and Boltzman Brains.) Formally, “pattern” translates to “pattern recognizable by an ordinal degree of hypercomputation”; the Turing principle thus results from either an explicit assumption of an ordinal of zero, or a provisional inference that hypercomputation doesn’t yet make any empirical explanations (formally) simpler. Or in short: it’s easier to just take an arbitrary axiom than invoke the “Omega Point”.
“Moral truth” is something of the flip side from logic and mathematics. Rather than being an implicit prior needed for answering of is-questions, moral orderings (EG: better or worse) for choices implicitly requires first answering is questions — particularly, “What are the choices?” While the existence of such orderings can be shown constructively, and humans have some tendencies in choice orderings, the question of which of the possible choice orderings the word “ought” references and the question of whether these human tendencies are “true” are non-empirical. Both require an additional axiom, to indicate which ought-ordering is meant; essentially, Hume’s is-ought problem.
So… logical, mathematical, and moral truth are arguments only effective against naturalism’s most naive forms and against moderately doltish adherents. (The most doltish tend not to understand the argument, and the least doltish tend to spot flaws.)
Based on the title of Nagel’s book, I say he is a ‘flea.’
He mite well be!
“We believe, along with most philosophers, that Nagel is right to reject theoretical reductionism”
Straw men or argumentum ad populum?
In any case, I found one philosopher’s discussion of reductionism insightful: “Pizza reductionism, emergence and phenomena” by John S. Wilkins
An awful lot of chest thumping going on.
that all sciences are in principle reducible to the laws of physics, which is materialism, is not identical to an attempt to reduce all sciences to physics. The former must be true unless you’re religious,”
(1) The argument is false because it commits the fallacy of the false dilemma. It simply does not follow that if reductionism is false religion must be true.
(2) Materialism is not the same thing as reductionism. Dualism posits that there are two substances in the world, matter and spirit. Materialism says there is only one, matter, and Idealism also says there is but one substance, mind. Many people do not accept materialism as defined above because “substance” doesn’t really explain anything in exactly the same way that “spirit stuff” doesn’t do any actual work for Idealism.
“more and more phenomena are being explained by physics”
Which of course tells us absolutely nothing about whether materialism is true or not. One really big misconception I see in the comments above, and stated in a typically arrogant style, is the belief that because philosophy isn’t science it is somehow worthless. Philosophers don’t do science, they do philosophy. Which is the exploration of the logical consequences of beliefs and states of affairs.
From the review:
Philosophical naturalists often appeal to the metaphor of “Neurath’s Boat,” named after the philosopher who developed it.
This seems to me to misconstrue what Neurath’s Boat is meant to question. It’s about identity and not so much about epistemology.
“Nagel fleshes out Plantinga’s arguments by claiming that there are indeed moral truths”
Um, yeah… it’s pretty much a consensus among philosophers that moral truths exist. There really do exist moral statements that are true independent of our beliefs or desires.
It simply does not follow that if reductionism is false religion must be true.
True, but uninteresting. You’re taking a sociological claim, probabilistic and of very high-fidelity, and assessing it as if intended as a pure logic claim.
(2) [tiresome phil 101 lecture]
Two thousand years ago, brilliant guys made brilliant speculations. (Don’t bother arguing that studying the history of ideas is to some degree intrinsically worthwhile; I already agree.) But where is the case that all that helps us today to understand how things probably go in the universe (including, of course, how things probably go in minds)?
Which of course tells us absolutely nothing about whether materialism is true or not.
You’d be on firmer ground to say that more and more phenomena are being explained by physics:
i) tells us nothing about whether materialism is absolutely true or not;
ii) tells us very much, broadly, about the sorts of problems we should focus our intellects on in order to achieve success (= adding to the Big Book of Nearly True Things), and, broadly, how to attack them. It does this with probabilistically high fidelity.
It also tells us what sorts of problems we should probably discard or probably leave for another day, even if we agree that speculation is fun, and some smart people do it quite well, and it sometimes fuels activities that subsequently lead to additions to the Big Book.
This seems to me to misconstrue ..
Holy fuck, you sound like a philosopher!
If Neurath’s Boat is/was often used to argue for claim X, what’s the actual problem with using it to argue for claim Y?
There really do exist moral statements that are true independent of our beliefs or desires.
Statements conditional upon simplistic, cooked up premises, maybe. But fruitfully true, like in number theory, where the complexity of “cooked up” assumptions is untold orders of magnitude below that of the environment of a reacting evolved organic brain? This is such a huge claim!
Now here’s some chest-thumping: you and your ilk have thunk your way to a point where the ability to be fruitfully engaged with the human condition has been profoundly attenuated.
Here’s a bit of empirical evidence in support of this statement.
Empirical ethicists today are mostly concerned with things like informed consent and advanced directives.
Philosophical ethicists, on the other hand, are busy fantasizing about how many different ways they can convince people to throw fatty under the train.
An empirical ethicist would instantly recognize the whole class of Trolley Problems as nothing more than an uninteresting variation on Milgram’s famous work. Rather than a man in a lab coat ordering the subject to realistically electrocute an imaginary victim, a philosopher in an armchair orders the subject to imagine crushing an imaginary victim. Unsurprisingly, the subjects of the philosopher’s poorly-designed psychological experiment dutifully comply. Duh! We already knew from Milgram that they would — and remind me how this study made it past the ethical review board, especially in light of Milgram’s work?
An an empirical ethicist wouldn’t at all be wasting time with that type of undergraduate-level psychology experiment. Instead, the empirical ethicist would be more concerned with making sure that proper safety mechanisms were in place at the trolley job site, that training was adequate, that the public was kept away from hazard, and so on. In the event of a failure of the system such as the Trolley Problem fantasizes about, the empirical ethicist would be more concerned with ensuring that the victims got prompt treatment, that the poor schmuck who got stuck at the switch got proper counseling, and that a top-to-bottom review was performed to do whatever needed to be done (up to and including government regulation and oversight) to make sure it never happened again.
…and that’s what I mean when I write that philosophy is atheistic theology. Just as theologians appropriate power unto themselves by pontificating on the true nature of the gods on whose behalf they speak, philosophers are more concerned with the power and status they gain by using their academic credentials and undeserved social status to get people to jump through their hoops.
Any psychologist could tell you as much. Once you grant power to the philosophers by admitting their (non-existent) expertise, you bind yourself in the chains of cognitive dissonance — chains which the philosophers are all too eager to yank.
“Empirical” philosophers just go around asking people about natural language stuff. That’s not science that’s collecting natural language ideas — that’s all.
It predicts little. What people say has little to do with future behavior.
Note also I’d distinguish between monism, the thesis that there is one sort of stuff (e.g. matter, but it has come in idealist varieties as well) and reductionism, that there is only one level or that a certain system only or primarily has properties which are shared by its components. “Physicalist” reductionism is the reductionism that would deny there are chemical properties, biological ones, etc. A slightly more interesting case (but one still false in my view) are psychoneural reductions of social properties – denying that there are social wholes, etc. This view has currency in many schools of economics, etc. and hence has actual adherents today.
I did not see this until now.
“So your next post will be an apology.”
However, I wish to object. I dont’ think that calling someone ignorant is that much of an insult. Ignorance is simply the condition of not being aware of something. When someone say something that is just flat out absurd like “Ethics is not a part of philosophy” I cannot think of any other way to describe that than ignorance.
I apologize for the “right wing reactionaries” remark however the charge of scientism remains.
You will comport yourself with dignity from now on and please abide by the website rules, as laid out here.
There will be no calling commenters names, even accusations of ignorance, which are pejorative regardless of how you spin them above. And you will not insult the good group of readers here, either.
Stick to the arguments and ideas. Perhaps you don’t realize it, but you are coming on very strong for a new reader. Get the lay of the land and be polite, not aggressive.
noen, I think it should be abundantly clear that I’m not ignorant of the claims of philosophers that ethics is their domain. I think I’ve also made it clear that those claims are bogus, and that ethics is and ought to be an empirical, not a philosophical, endeavor.
You can reasonably challenge the validity of my position, but only by citing evidence supporting yours, not by falsely accusing me of ignorance on the subject. Especially when my first statement on the matter made clear my position that philosophers do not deserve the credit they claim for ethics.
Hell, in said first statement I even made an analogy with alchemy’s relationship to organic chemistry. How much clearer could I possibly be?
I’ve written it before, and I’ll write it here again: philosophy is atheistic theology, nothing more and nothing less. That philosophy evolved into science is noteworthy, but it doesn’t mean that those who cling to the long-since-discredit discipline of philosophy are any more deserving of respect than those who prefer astrology to astronomy.
Who said (paraphrasing): philosophy of science is as important to scientists as ornithology is to birds?
According to Wikipedia, that’d be Feynman.
Because, of course, how best to practice science is itself a problem that can only be solved empirically. That’s how we got the peer review process, and why we’re probably at the tail end of the era of for-profit journals. And no philosopher could possibly hope to contribute to these sorts of things, except through empirical study — they’d be too busy trying to convince you to abandon empiricism altogether in favor of their favorite alternate way of knowing (such as the ones that noen has been hinting at).
WEIT, please note if I’m comporting with the rules. Should I take your name off that certain argument?
I so laud your refutation of theistic evolution!
Philosophy student from a top university. Why does anybody take this guy seriously in the first place?
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