Existence

The stablest thing we can speak of
is not free from conditions.
Even the solid earth mountains
Appear and disappear like the clouds.

The fixed and unchanged Atom of Democritus
Is now said to possess some traits of non-being,
To embody a temporary equilibrium
In the economy of nature’s compromises.

A thing may endure secula seculorum
And yet not be everlasting;
It will crumble before the gnawing mouth
Of time,
As it exceeds a certain measure.

Every existence is an event.

– John Dewey, Experience and Nature (1928). Pages 70-71 (reconfigured to show its music)

Art vs. Philosophy?

Do Art and Philosophy ever meet?
Does Art seek only beauty, while Philosophy seeks only ideas?
Here is one answer:

“The odd notion that an artist does not think and a scientific inquirer does nothing else is the result of converting a difference of tempo and emphasis into a difference in kind. Thinkers have their aesthetic moments when their ideas cease to be mere ideas and become the incorporated meanings of objects. Artists have their problems and think as they work. But their thoughts are more immediately embodied in the object. Because of the comparative remoteness of the end in view, the scientific writer operates with symbols, words and mathematical signs. Artists do their thinking in the very qualitative media being worked in, and the terms there lie so close to the object being produced that they merge directly into it.”

– John Dewey, Art as Experience, page 14,
(paraphrased to suit contemporary use of gender.)

Introduction to ARE YOU OR ARE YOU NOT

There is no question mark at the end of the title  because it is up to you to decide whether it is, or is not, a question, and if so, how would you answer it? Or does it have an answer?

Science Writer Rita Carter, apparently asking this as a question, settles the issue by saying you are a machine. More than that: you are a programmable machine. Your belief that you are persons – that is to say, a free agents – is a mistaken idea that is “deeply ingrained because it prevents you from falling into a suicidally fatalistic state of mind…it is one of the brain’s most powerful aids to survival.”[1] The only reason you think you are a person instead of a machine is that you can’t stand the idea that you are a machine so you have created an illusion for yourself to keep from committing suicide. If you really believed it you would no longer want to live. Future generations, she continues, “will take for granted that we are programmable machines just as we take for granted the fact that the earth is round.”1 But until then, you will continue to consider yourself as a person even though you aren’t.

A very careful look at Carter’s view through a logical microscope shows that it is full of fundamental errors of reasoning. Nevertheless, her idea of what people are is a good place to introduce the main theme of my book ARE YOU OR ARE YOU NOT. The theme is this: if, like Carter, you agree that you are a machine, you are being fooled by what has been promoted over the past half-century or longer as the dominant paradigm of our time: a paradigm which subtly and unconsciously governs the way those within a great deal of world culture agree to think of themselves, of others, and in general of what is real and what is not.

It is the paradigm of what is called technically mechanistic reductionism, which says that physics and the mathematical equations of physics are the window, and the only window, through which we see the true nature of reality. I call this the dominant paradigm, in contrast to what this book, with your assistance along the way, sets out to find. What we will be seeking, and learning to understand, is not the dominant way of understanding ourselves and how we fit into the world, but the alternative paradigm.

The dominant paradigm turns everything into space, time, matter and machinery, then with a turn of the wrist, turns machinery into “artificial intelligence,” and next argues that persons are the simply organic intelligent machinery. Everything, including life, consciousness, and personhood, is reduced to mechanism. But the ultimate result of this confused and arbitrary elevating of physical science to the status of an oracle is full of dangers. Furthermore it is wrong. Belief in the dominant paradigm results from a misconstrual of the science of physics. Instead of being understood as a useful tool in the service of life and subordinate to life, physics, which cannot explain life, has promoted itself as the window through which we must see the fundamental character of everything, and everything we can observe through the window of physics is dead. Whatever appears to be alive is a result of accidental groupings of dead matter into a form programmed, again accidentally, to seem alive by trying to avoid destruction and running from danger – for no explicable reason.

As one physicist has said, reality is nothing but “atoms and empty space.” And of course such things are not alive. Life, however, comes first, and a science which denies life in favor of mechanism undercuts its own reason for existence. With a hubris unmatched by that of Achilles at Troy, physics tells us it will soon provide us with a “Theory of Everything.” That should be enough to set the alarm bells ringing. If someone comes around telling you they have found the “Theory of Everything,” you should be very, very suspicious. And if you find everyone around you buying into the hype, you should become shocked and raise an alarm. Unfortunately, almost no one is raising the alarm, too many are too deaf to hear it, and too many are lapping it up without noticing the ache it is causing.

Don’t be fooled. Accept the challenge of this book and follow along with me as I seek the elusive, hidden, and suppressed alternative paradigm.

Stan V. McDaniel

Stanmcdaniel.org

FOOTNOTE

[1] Carter 1998, 207. To make the quote more personal, I have substituted “you” for “us” but Carter of course refers to all human beings. All of “us” are machines.

 

Review of Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis

What might physician and professor of geriatric medicine Raymond Tallis, and actor John Rhys-Davies, have in common? In Peter Jackson’s epic film The Lord of the Rings, Rhys-Davies (as Gimli the dwarf) wields an axe with such consummate skill as to challenge, intimidate and lend a hand in the defeat of the evil orcs of Mordor; while in Aping Mankind Tallis (as philosopher and scientist) with a finely-honed axe of logic takes on perhaps equally formidable foes: those Cognitive Scientists possessed by “Neuromania” (p. 26) and Evolutionary Biologists obsessed by “Darwinitis” (p. 40) (called respectively “Neuromaniacs” and “Darwinitics”).
An inapt comparison? Orcs are degenerate mutations from a once benign race, who would destroy or enslave all humankind, while Evolutionary Biologists and Cognitive Scientists are, certainly, benign professionals enriching the store of knowledge for the benefit of all. Yet as Tallis makes abundantly clear, many Cognitive Scientists believe that the mind is the brain, the brain is a computer, and since a computer has no self and does not exist in a world of intentionality, human beings have no selves and do not exist in a world of intentionality (p. 101). Some biologists and psychologists, influenced by the twin premises that the brain is a product of evolution and that the mind is a computer-brain, reduce “mind” to a single-purpose biological mechanism programmed only to ensure the survival of the gene pool. The wedding of the mind-brain-computer theory to the Darwinian impulse produces a “grand synthesis of Darwinitis and Neuromania” against which Tallis mounts his argument (p. 145). He is convinced that these views, riddled as he believes with faulty logic and bad science, are in fact dangerous.

The distinctive features of human beings – self-hood, free will, that collective space called the human world, the sense that we lead our lives rather than simply live them as organisms do – are being discarded as illusions by many, even by philosophers…Such views may have consequences that are not merely intellectually derelict but dangerous (p. 8).

In this densely packed, well researched and carefully argued volume of over 400 pages Tallis offers penetrating critiques of assumptions prominent in Neuroscience and Evolutionary Biology and lays out what he considers to be their potential negative consequences. The book moves on to a “Defense of the Humanities” and a stimulating though inconclusive effort to provide a solution to the chief problem raised by his analysis of the mind-body relation.

What is the Danger?

Tallis argues that the conclusions of “Neuromaniacs” (NMs) and “Darwinitics” (DTs), have “added weight to traditional determinism” with its corollary that there is no such thing as personal responsibility (pp. 49-50). Although it is not new to debate the existence of free will, Tallis holds that “the incursion of neuroscience into our sense of ourselves as conscious agents is more ‘up close and personal… [and] the personal gives way before the impersonal” (p. 51). Thus he cites the view of neurophysiologist Colin Blakemore (p. 50),

The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all our actions, our most private thoughts, our beliefs…All our actions are products of the activity of our brains.

In referring to “private thoughts and beliefs,” this does not go far enough; a significant theme in neuroscientific circles is “eliminative materialism” which argues that thoughts are merely the flow of physical energies within the computer-brain, and beliefs are illusions of a “folk psychology” eventually to be replaced by a new conceptual framework provided by neuroscience. And since the self is an illusion, the idea of any thought being “private” is also in error, since there is nothing for a thought to be private to. The brain is a machine which has no thoughts and no beliefs. And “you” are “your” brain (but there is no “you”).
Surely, though, the vast majority of humanity will just go right on “thinking” that “they” have “beliefs” (even NMs and DTs seem unable to avoid this illusion), so why worry? Tallis’ first concern is a perceived potential for fostering human self-hatred. His book begins with a keynote citation from Straw Dogs by John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, in which Gray is reported as saying that the lives of humans, who are “rapacious, destructive, predatory animals,” are “obviously not worth preserving,” and have “no more meaning than that of a slime mould” (p. 1). Thus Tallis’ first concern has to do with psychological consequences: encouragement of “despair and inactivity” (p. 64).
A second, “even more frightening,” concern rests on a proposed NM solution to the destructive aspect of the human animal-machine: Legal and governmental decision-making should be determined by neuroscientific understanding of the “brain’s system of justice” and of how “the brain reacts to conflicts.” Although this may appear extreme and even irrational (if the brain is that of a rapacious predatory animal, why should anyone trust its system of justice?), such ideas are in fact being considered (p. 65, citing Zeki and Goodenough, 2006.)
A third concern, characterized by Tallis as “sinister,” is what may follow from the notion that “there is more of the animal in some people than in others.” Tallis here cites views from which it would follow that we should treat mentally handicapped human beings as we would animals (p. 68). Tallis does not go so far here as to suggest whether the determination of who, or of what group or population, is handicapped, should be placed in the hands of NMs and DTs, but it is a reasonable question to ask.
One might think such views are of little consequence because supported only within relatively small areas of scientific study and academic commentary. Not so: Tallis notes that the idea of neuroscience having “dominion over territory that once belonged to the human sciences” is fostered not only incessantly in the popular press but in the burgeoning growth of disciplines such as neuro- or evolutionary- jurisprudence, economics, aesthetics, theology, architecture, archaeology, and ethics (p. 58).
Of particular interest to this reader is Tallis’ commentary on the incursion of NM/DT assumptions in aesthetics. It would seem reasonable to hold that the existence of the arts testifies most strongly against the notion that human beings are computers driven by neuro-biological programming. What has a machine after all to do with ballet, opera, string quartets, or the Night Café? But Tallis reports a different view.

The aficionados of “neuroaesthetics” explain the impact of different kinds of art by referring to what is seen on fMRI scans…The creation of art itself is a neurally mediated activity by which the artist, unknown to himself, behaves in such a way as to promote the replication of his genetic material (p. 58).

If Vincent van Gogh had understood this explanation of his artistic endeavors, one could readily understand why he sliced off his ear: his entire life’s work had no more value than the satisfaction of lusts in copulating animals. (But since he had no knowledge of neuroaesthetics, there must have been something else wrong with his brain.)
A key term here is value. In the purposeless world of material science (and of eliminative materialism) there can be no values, since value rests on beliefs, purposes, goals, satisfactions and disappointments. Divesting the world of intentionality is divesting it of meaning, and the psychological condition of living in a meaningless world is Nihilism (p. 66). Over a hundred years ago, Nietzsche came to the following conclusion upon considering the rise of science, the desire for supernaturally sanctioned truth, and the relation between value and purpose:

What I am now going to relate is the history of the next two centuries. I shall describe what will happen, what must necessarily happen: the triumph of Nihilism…What does Nihilism mean? – That the highest values are losing their value. There is no bourne. There is no answer to the question: “to what purpose?”…Thorough Nihilism is the conviction that life is absurd” (Nietzsche 1910, Preface and p. 8).

Seen from the perspective provided by Tallis, one may wonder whether this prediction is well on its way toward fulfillment. Surely it is cavalier, with the presumed authority of science, to divest the world of meaning by intentionally denying the existence of intentionality. But whether the dire result feared by Tallis is avoidable or inevitable would seem to depend on the question of whether the identification of humanity with animality and of the mind with a computer-brain is founded on truth or scientistic confusion.

The Two Towers of Scientism

Of course Tallis is speaking not of Neuroscience or Evolutionary Biology in general, but only of the allied edifices of NM and DT. Tallis devotes Chapters 3 and 4 to a scathing critique of each in turn. There are four primary lines of argument which he raises against NM: argument from methodology and technology, from causality, from the phenomenological description of consciousness, and from logic.
Regarding the first, Tallis describes limitations of fMRI brain scans (p. 74), oversimplified experimental designs (pp. 74-77), evidence for non-modular distribution of brain activity such as memory (p. 80) and other technical and procedural limitations. However, since it can always be argued that such limitations may, with better technology, be overcome, Tallis must take into account other dimensions of the problem.
The first of these is the attribution of the causes of conscious states to specific areas of the brain. Giving a causal status to putative functional modules in the brain raises an acute problem of conceptual confusion among “three quite different relations: correlation, causation and identity.” Mere correlation of a particular area of brain activity with some specific mental activity cannot serve as proof that a specific locus of brain activity is the sole cause, or even identical with, the associated mental activity (p. 83). Against the assumption of discrete modules, Tallis points out that when a particular area of the brain becomes active in the presence of some stimulus, “much more of the brain is already active” (p. 75). Tallis shares this point with other critics who hold that the brain is a necessary but not sufficient condition for consciousness, and that one cannot separate the brain from the nervous system as a whole (e.g. Rockwell 2007, Chemero 2009).
What Tallis adds, however, is a depth of detail and a broadened perspective not usually encountered in similar critiques. Tallis opens up the greater sphere of experience that he posits is systematically neglected in the discussion: the human world. “Even those who locate the roots of consciousness in the brain should still recognize that brains together create a space that cannot be stuffed back into the brain” (p. 235). For example, speaking of studies claiming to have found the location of unconditional love in the brain by recording brain activity while the experimental subjects look at photographs of those with whom they are deeply in love, he says “anyone who is not a Martian” knows that

Love is not like a response to a simple stimulus such as a picture. It is not even a single enduring state, like being cold. It encompasses many things, including: not feeling in love at that moment; hunger; indifference; delight, wanting to be kind; wanting to impress; worrying over the logistics of meetings; lust; awe; surprise; joy; guilt; anger; jealousy; imagining conversations or events; speculating what the loved one is doing when one is not there; and so on…The more you think about the idea that human life can be parcelled out into discrete functions that are allocated to their own bits of the brain, the more absurd it seems (pp. 75-80).

In many ways Tallis’ book is an extended, impassioned evocation of this greater world. This is his third argument, that from the phenomenological description of human experience, the explanation of which he says is not even remotely approached by NMs or DTs. By limiting the concept of experience to an artificially narrow range, simplistic experimental designs and broadly-brushed conclusions are made to seem reasonable. Tallis, we might say, is inviting NMs and DTs, like the denizens of Plato’s Cave, to come out into the vastly wider realm of truth, fact, belief, error, beauty, love, community, and in short, intentionality; putting into proper perspective the endeavors and findings of science as these may enrich, rather than impoverish, that world ((p. 91 passim).

Logic and Language: A Failed Attempt at Conceptual Judo

Here however we are brought to the fourth of the criticisms mentioned above: logic. The claim that intentionality is an illusion, and that such things as beliefs do not exist, appears to plunge NMs into a morass of self-contradiction: they believe that their beliefs do not exist; that they themselves do not exist. But as Tallis puts it, “it is not possible to deny viewpoint” (pp. 112, 336-338). Against this, neuroscientists have argued that such seeming contradictions emerge only because we (temporarily) must use the defective language of “folk psychology;” but just as soon as the neuroscientists provide a linguistic framework reflecting the true reality, such contradictions will simply go away (cf. Churchland 1986).
This defense is like a move in martial arts: use your opponent’s strength against him. But that move can easily be reversed. The language the NM calls for in fact already exists. It is the language of the physical sciences. Only the purely physical description of the universe is real and whatever does not fit that framework is an illusion. And that is an example of what philosopher John Dewey long ago termed the philosophical fallacy: taking objects of “selective preference” and converting them into “antecedent existence,” i.e. into the fundament of reality (Dewey 1958 pp. 25-30). The NM is not asserting a scientific truth but is instead promulgating a metaphysical doctrine.
Although Tallis never cites Dewey (he is not even listed in the 16 small-type pages of references), Tallis’ argument from the quality of human experience is strongly reminiscent of Dewey’s views. Advocating substitution of the language of the Physical Sciences for the language of intentionality creates a schism between the specialized sciences, with their plethora of abstract theoretical entities, and the world of experience and common sense out of which those sciences grew and to which they are irretrievably related. The allegedly stable, certain and unchanging law-like character of the physical sciences, in contrast to the unwieldy face of the experienced world, promotes the “refined objects” of science to a level of selective preference as the pure reality. Then

The stable ideal meanings which are the fruit of nature are forbidden…from dropping seeds in nature to its further fructification (Dewey 1958 p. 58).

As I read him, this is the central point of Tallis’ deeply felt and magnificently argued concern: Instead of running away from the world of common sense and calling it pejorative names such as “folk psychology,” science should always, no matter how abstract its theory becomes, return to that world and give back with interest what it has taken. The startling degree to which the neuro- and evolutionary- “pseudosciences” manage to impoverish the world is starkly highlighted in a summary Tallis gives in Chapter 9 (p. 337).

Misplaced Anti-Animality

Tallis to this point has presented a richly detailed and convincingly argued position, and he does this in a highly readable – at times entertaining – style. But now we come to a less satisfactory discussion. Tallis still must put Evolutionary Biology in its place. Here he commits a large-scale blunder. In order to reject the idea that all human behavior is explained by reference to animal instinct driven exclusively by the mechanism of natural selection, he finds himself having to advocate a yawning gulf between animal life and human experience. The form his argument takes is to mount a wholesale denigration of animal existence. Human behavior is fundamentally different (p. 233). He comes close to concatenating animals with insentient matter (p. 232). Animal vision is “programmed response” while that of humans is “the gaze which looks out and sees” (p. 171). Animal life, in contrast to the human “shared world” is rather a world of “bumped into objects and forces” – seeming to suggest that animals are little different from billiard balls. Animal emotions are exhausted by “the rapid heart rate and increased respiratory rate of a beast being prepared for fighting, fleeing, feeding or copulating” (p. 233). It is, he says, “bad biology to assimilate animal emotions to human feelings.” He does not appear to realize that it is also bad biology to assimilate animal behavior to that of billiard balls.
Animals as he sees them also do not live in any dimension of time. While human experience has “temporal depth” (p. 250), the behavior of animals such as crows caching food for future use does not indicate any “sense of future need” but is rather a mechanical “hard-wired” activity with no relation to a felt need or the existence of a future (p. 134). On such a view an animal chasing a prey, for example, is not pursuing a goal within a temporal dimension, but is merely reacting mechanically from one instant to the next, with all the composite instances being separate billiard-ball reactions to separate stimuli. There is no telic quality (possibly rudimentary intentionality) to animal behavior – this despite the testimony of biologists like Edmund Sinnott, who speaks of the “persistent directiveness or goal-seeking that is the essential feature of behavior and thus finally the basis of all mental activity” (Sinnott 1955 p. 52).
Sinnott is not a DT. He does not reduce human behavior to that of animals. But he posits a continuity in the development of consciousness from animal to human life. Such continuity works both ways: there is something of the animal in the human, but there is also something of the human in the animal. Tallis is exaggeratedly wary of admitting continuity as it might apply to consciousness because he mistakenly feels that to admit any incremental or significant developmental flow from animal to human is to give in to the DTs. We shall see however that although Tallis repeatedly gives the (sometimes excessively brutal) impression that nonhuman animals have nothing like a conscious existence, he cannot hold firmly to this position, and it causes him trouble when he arrives at his concluding attempts at a remedial theory.

The Wrap-up: A Stimulating Theory that Stumbles

His first step is to highlight the difficulty which his own argument has created: the acute difference between the human world and its biological and material predecessors. He has concluded that natural selection is a “mindless, pointless process” that has no goal and is thereby in stark contrast to the human world. He believes this, he says, because he is an atheist humanist. In other words, in his view to believe that evolution has a goal is to believe in a supernatural designing deity (p. 209). It is here that Tallis’ penetration begins to weaken. For one thing, the possibility that there might be some degree of directionality, i.e. a telic property within the sweep of evolution but not necessitating a designing deity, does not seem to occur to him (or perhaps he does not think it worthy of consideration). He does not distinguish between the having of goals and the having of one overall Goal (my capitalization). Evolution has no Goal but humans are able to “consciously aim at stated goals,” which, he concludes, means that “humans are not a part of nature or not entirely so” (P. 210).
The rather peculiar syllogistic reasoning appears to be this: Evolution is part of nature; evolution has no Goal; humans have goals; therefore humans are not part of nature (or not entirely so). The caveat “not entirely so” renders this less fallacious; but in any case the difference between Goal and goal is overlooked. The argument might be recovered by the following: Animals have no goals (sans capitalization); humans have goals; therefore humans are not animals (or not entirely so?). In order to make this work, however, he must deny that a hawk in search of prey, a titmouse building a nest, or a beaver chewing a branch off a tree for use in constructing a dam, have goals; or if we must say they have goals, we must distinguish between animal goals and human goals. Human goals are conscious, anticipated, explicit. Animal “goals” are so only by misplaced analogy. The animal is without consciousness. It has no existence in time, no past or future, no anticipation. For the animal, nothing is or can be “explicit.”
This appears to me to be what Tallis wishes to say – when he is attacking Darwinitics. But now a different story arises. If as he has argued, humans are “not a part of nature or not entirely so,” the absolutely necessary requirement for a coherent view is to answer, without appealing to supernatural intervention or alien devices hidden in monoliths, the question: how did humans get to be so different? (P. 210). This Tallis attempts, although tentatively, to answer.
Let us review once again the immensity of the difference as understood by Tallis. It is not the difference between, for example, ordinary chimpanzees and “exceptionally gifted” chimpanzees (p. 212). It is not a minute incremental step on a ladder of progress responding to some teleological impulse inherent in the processes of life. It is not simply the advent of “a larger frontal cortex” (p. 213). No. It is a shock, a jolt, the advent of something stunning. And that something, Tallis has it, is the human hand with its opposable thumb, its ability to be used for grasping and pointing, and in particular its placement upon an upright bipedal body that allows it to be seen at a distance from the head but at the same time to be felt as a part of the whole: “The thumb…taken in conjunction with the upright position, transformed the primate hand into a proto-tool” (p. 213).
Yet the question remains: What has a better paw got to do with bridging his carefully, painstakingly constructed, immense gulf between unconscious animal life and the world of consciousness inhabited by humans? Tallis engages in an elaborate account of what he considers the reasons that “something so small as the hand…should have had such momentous, indeed massive, consequences.” It is a clever, stimulating and interesting demonstration of the functional relationship between the hand, upright posture, the opposable thumb, the extending of the arm and the visibility to the eye of the hand’s actions. And it has a convincing ring to it. But none of it answers the fundamental question as to how something totally unconscious and without any sense of self or existence in time, can come to experience temporal depth, become conscious – and become conscious of itself as a self. It is here, at the crucial moment, where Tallis’ scenario collapses.

The hand…made the human animal, our hominid ancestor, uniquely aware of its own actively engaged body. This awoke the dim intuition “That I am this body” (p. 212).

So the key, the turning point, is the “awakening” of a dim intuition. But how can an an intuitionless being have an intuition? “Intuition” belongs to the language of mind; an intuition can occur only to a self – even if it is “dim” and is occurring to a limited kind of self. Otherwise “dim intuition” is just a couple of words explaining nothing. And calling this intuition dim admits of degrees. Something was there, some kind of self-consciousness, as a necessary condition for the having of any intuition whatsoever. Tallis, in other words, is forced at this final juncture to admit to some form of developmental continuity from animality to humanity; from animal consciousness to human consciousness.
What he has stumbled upon, driven by the force of his own reasoning, is a theoretical position similar to that of thinkers such as Pierre Teilhard (de Chardin) another profoundly relevant and much-neglected philosopher who is also not within the sphere of Tallis’ references.

Properly observed, even if only in one spot, a phenomenon necessarily has an omnipresent value and roots by reason of the fundamental unity of the world… ‘Consciousness is completely evident only in man’ we are tempted to say, ‘therefore it is an isolated instance of no interest to science.’ … ‘Consciousness is evident in man’ we must continue, correcting ourselves, ‘therefore, half-seen in this one flash of light, it…is surrounded by an aura of indefinite spatial and temporal extension.’ In the world, nothing could ever burst forth as final across the different thresholds successively traversed by evolution…which has not already existed in an obscure and primordial way” (Teilhard 1961, my italics).

My point here is not to argue for the validity of Teilhard’s view, which is nonetheless vastly more accommodating than Tallis’ clumsy attempt to slip consciousness in where he has previously fought to deny it. The point is that Tallis cannot get out of his dilemma without admitting a prior development of degrees of consciousness within the evolutionary process, thereby arriving at a position close to that of Teilhard.
The real contrast, then, seems to me to be between the closed world empty of consciousness and deprived of selfhood as envisioned by the NMs and DTs sitting huddled with the others in Plato’s cave, or an open world of continuity within which human consciousness is a part of nature simply because in one degree or another, the spawning of consciousness is an entirely natural phenomenon and extends somehow to the roots of matter. If the latter is one’s choice, and if that choice means a revolution in our understanding of matter and of a healthier relation between science and humanity, so be it. It should be a conclusion with which, however reluctantly, Tallis must agree.

This review first appeared in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (2014).

Review of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos

The subtitle of this surprisingly brief volume by Thomas Nagel presages something more, and something less, than what at a glance it may seem to promise. In such a confined space as a mere 128 pages, coming from such a noted philosopher, one might expect that Nagel has consolidated and refined a highly focused, decisive argument against the prevalent materialist-reductionist account of mind and its place in nature. Those of a materialist view will not likely be concerned, since philosophical objections seldom seem to have much effect on that paradigm. On the other hand, those who feel deeply that something is amiss in the reductionist account might be a bit disturbed when they realize the import of the word almost in the subtitle. Is Nagel hedging his bets?
That puzzling “almost” is easier to understand, however, when we reach the concluding summary, which might better have been placed right up front on page 1.

Philosophy has to proceed comparatively. The best we can do is to develop the rival alternative conceptions in each important domain as fully and carefully as possible, depending on our antecedent sympathies, and see how they measure up. That is a more credible form of progress than decisive proof or refutation (p. 127).

And this is what Nagel sets out to do most brilliantly. But there is another phrase in this philosophically subtle paragraph that belies any impression that Nagel himself is uncertain about the topic. That is his reference to “our antecedent sympathies.” Nagel’s own sympathies are clearly present throughout and are firmly negative when it comes to materialistic reductionism. But he is not dogmatic about it, and this produces quite another kind of argument. Nagel argues most compellingly against the materialist view by first delving deeply into every nook and cranny of the multiple possible theories about mind and its relation to the cosmos, then inviting the reader to understand, and hopefully share, his own profoundly personal and philosophically careful conviction that reductionist theories lead to a dead end.
In his chapter on values, for example, after having admitted that some options he has been detailing which are contrary to the materialistic view are “offered merely as possibilities and without positive conviction,” he explains what he is convinced of.

What I am convinced of is the negative claim that, in order to understand our questions and judgments about values and reasons realistically, we must reject the idea that they result from the operation of faculties that have been formed from scratch by chance plus natural selection, or that are incidental side effects of natural selection, or are products of genetic drift (p. 125).

In other words, what Nagel himself is convinced of after exhaustive and informed study of the various options, and after consideration especially of what it is to be a human being living in a world of “values and reasons,” as well as consciousness, selfhood and meaning, is that (exactly as the subtitle says) the reductionist conception of nature is “almost certainly false.” It is almost certainly false because dumping all those important aspects of what it is to be human into a trash heap is not only unacceptable, it is a profound misconstrual of the natural world.
What is really entailed by Nagel’s “almost” is that while the failure of the reductionistic paradigm seems clear, the success of the most likely alternative theory is, in our current state of knowledge, still beyond reach. That does not mean, however, that there may not be an alternative theory offering more promise of success than does the prevailing paradigm. This paradigm is the orthodox view, and as Nagel points out, “any resistance to it is regarded as not only scientifically but politically incorrect” (p. 5). In opposing this view, Nagel uses an end-run strategy. He mounts a hypothetical argument, the “argument from the failure of psychophysical reductionism,” which means working from the premise that such reductionism is false, and seeing what must result from that assumption (p. 15).
The assumption of the argument is not arbitrary. Nagel believes that there are empirical reasons to adopt a skeptical view with respect to the reductionist program. He is working from a basis of informed skepticism. And as he puts it that skepticism has to be rather strong.

For a long time I have found the materialist account…hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works. The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes…It seems to me that, as it is usually presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense (p. 5).

This not at all inderminate position sets the overall tenor of the book. On the one hand, Nagel delves into the empirical reasons for adopting a skeptical view, throwing in a couple of powerful logical reasons as well. On the other hand, he explores possible alternatives to the materialist view and which of the alternatives, in his opinion, is the most probable one. At times his argument is rather involved. I find that on a first reading the overall organization of the book is not immediately clear, at least until the closing chapters. A second and even a third reading, however, reveal jewels of careful thought that in this reader’s opinion are not only rewarding, but are a significant contribution to the discussion.
One of the primary reasons against the reductionist view which Nagel cites repeatedly is that the application of the criterion of “fitness” to such experiential factors as consciousness, cognition and value simply does not work. These three factors represent, in fact, the division of chapters in the book. After an introduction and overall survey of issues and alternatives, chapters 3, 4 and 5 discuss those topics in that order. In this limited space I do not attempt to represent or evaluate the multitude of arguments literally crammed into the book. All are challenging and all are carefully set forth. I will however summarize some of that material and then turn to what I feel is the most important contribution of the book.
When Nagel refers to consciousness as an acknowledged feature of the world, he tends to use the phrases “subjective appearances” or “subjective experience” (pp. 35-36). He does not intend “subjective” here to imply a Berkeleyan subjective idealism, the view that only appearances are experienced rather than objective reality. In clarification, he provides “the aspect of mental phenomena that is evident from the first-person, inner point of view of the conscious subject” (p.38). He makes the point that identification of such experiences with a physical brain state constitutes a serious logical error, citing an argument made by Max Black (pp. 39-41).
In this discussion, Nagel distinguishes between a constitutive and a historical explanation of consciousness (p. 54). The attempt to identify a subjective experience with a brain state is an example of a constitutive explanation of consciousness. A historical explanation would be a demonstration of how some evolutionary theory would explain consciousness as the eventual result of a process of natural evolution. Nagel, however, makes a very interesting and definitive move; he does not dispute evolution as such, but only neo-Darwinian evolution as allied with physical science and based on chance mutation and survival of the fittest. This important diversion plays a role in his discussion of alternative theories.
As a proper philosopher, Nagel thrives on the making of important distinctions. Along with the distinction between constitutive and historical explanations, he employs a distinction between “external” and “internal” explanations. These distinctions are applied to a further distinction between three main theories of mind in relation to cosmos. (So as the reader can intuit, things tend to get rather complex.)
The two external theories are the materialistic and the theistic theories. They are “external” because in those theories the driving force in evolution derives from an external source: the operation of chance mutation under physical laws in the first case, and the intentions of a divine creator in the other (p. 21 ff.). Nagel finds both of these theories lacking as a means of accomplishing a transcendent self-understanding, which would mean a comprehensive understanding of ourselves, including our most salient features such as consciousness, cognition and values, as natural expressions of the cosmos. (I will come to a discussion of the third proposed alternative momentarily). In the three chapters that follow, Nagel employs yet another distinction, that between emergent explanation of consciousness and reductive explanation. The reader, then, can anticipate quite an array of alternatives and evaluations of each.
In this endeavor, Nagel employs a large-scale set of general criteria against which he finds the two “external” theories, in whatever manifestation, lacking. Essentially, these criteria stem from the nature of “our own existence.”

Our own existence presents us with the fact that somehow the world generates conscious beings capable of recognizing reasons for actions and belief, distinguishing some necessary truths, and evaluating the evidence for alternative hypotheses about the natural order. We don’t know how this happens, but it is hard not to believe there is some explanation of a systematic kind – an expanded account of the order of the world. (P.31).

In order to get hold of this strong criterion, which echoes Nagel’s previously quoted reference to common sense, it is important to realize that all these things Nagel cites as facts of human existence have been increasingly denied in the halls of cognitive science – or, as philosopher/physician Raymond Tallis put it recently, by those addicted to “Neuromania” and “Darwinitis” (Tallis 2011 p. 40). Common sense, which Nagel cites as important, is regularly dismissed as a false “folk psychology”
In contrast, it is precisely this move – denying the existence of what the current paradigm cannot explain – that Nagel takes as empirical evidence that the materialistic explanation fails. It is worthwhile to note the difference between the way Nagel makes his appeal to experience as the criterion and the way Tallis expresses it. Nagel, in his concise 128-page essay, speaks largely in terms of general categories of experience, such as the category of our ability to reason or the category of our belief in objective truths about moral and ethical matters. Tallis, on the other hand, utilizes his 358 pages to house much more detailed descriptions of what that experience, with its unfathomable and perhaps ineffable depths, actually is – an experiment which indeed every person can carry out as he or she goes about in daily life (e.g. Tallis 2011, pp. 75-80). It is his reliance on these facts of experience that Nagel fundamentally appeals to in his remark on “our antecedent sympathies.” Nagel does however include a brief account of the sorts of experience Tallis recounts in more detail, citing the “incredible riches” of experience, including “beauty, love, pleasure, knowledge, and the sheer joy of existing and living in the world” (p. 120). In effect, the challenge to the reader is this: “look closely at your life – and then tell me you can agree that you are not a self but a machine devoid of free will, consciousness, knowledge and value.”
Summing up his initial overall perspective at the end of his first chapter, “Antireductionism and the Natural Order,” Nagel cites “the respective inadequacies of materialism and theism” which he has dealt with briefly in that chapter and which he will pin down in more detail in the following chapters. Despite these inadequacies of present theory he argues for the impossibility of giving up the task of understanding, with the hope that the future may lead to “an expanded but still naturalistic understanding that avoids psychophysical reductionism” (p. 32). At this point, Nagel makes a statement that many, and particularly the vast majority of physical scientists, will perceive as scandalous. It is an expression of the third possibility, which is an internal, rather than external, theory.

“…such an understanding would be to explain the appearance of life, consciousness, reason and knowledge…as an unsurprising if not inevitable consequence of the order that governs the natural world from within. That order…will not be explainable by physics and chemistry alone. An expanded, but still unified, form of explanation will be needed, and I expect it will have to include teleological elements” (pp. 32-33, my emphasis).

Here we get down to the bottom line of Nagel’s book. In denial of the dogma of standard scientific practice against any explanation that dares to suggest a purposive impulse in the natural world, Nagel proposes that an expanded evolutionary theory must involve a teleological factor; but not a teleology resulting from the inscrutable intentions of a supernatural creator. Rather it must be what Nagel calls a natural teleology, coming from within the cosmos rather than coming from either the will of a divine creator or the action of an inadequate set of physical laws which preclude the telic factor. It would assert that directionality of evolution leading to the development of life and consciousness must belong internally to the natural world at every stage of its existence, from the Big Bang onward.
Here, then, is where Nagel steps in where angels fear to tread. So powerful is the bias against any explanation of evolutionary development that includes a teleological factor, that Nagel may expect a cold welcome from those committed to the dominant paradigm And this propels him into initiating some discussion of how the process of the evolution of life and consciousness can involve a teleological factor without assuming a single telos or goal – in other words, the theory is not a theory of externally predetermined goals, but yet one of purposiveness in nature: Cosmological directionality without a closed conclusion.
Nagel’s essay into this treacherous realm is not extensive. He cites an important analysis by Roger White to the effect that a confusion exists when it is assumed that since the intentional theory must be rejected, no alternative account of evolution remains but the mechanistic one (p. 90). Following up on this point, he provides a brief foray into the question of what a “natural teleology” would be. It would have to be distinct from appeal to the operation of chance, from external supernatural intention, and from blind physical law (p.91). Is such a conception of teleology in nature possible? Nagel returns here to his guiding principle of careful philosophical exploration as well as his view that whatever the answers to the evolutionary dilemma are, they will not be those of the standard paradigm and they will eventually be discovered.

A naturalistic teleology would mean that organizational and developmental principles of this kind are an irreducible part of the natural order, and not the result of intentional or purposive influence by anyone. I am not confident that this Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention makes sense, but I do not at the moment see why it doesn’t (p. 91).

In making this move, Nagel is walking on a philosophical and a scientific tightrope between the other alternatives. But his contribution to the discussion is significant for two reasons. The first is that it emerges from a strongly argued skepticism as to the value and likely success of the materialist reductionist approach as well as a general rejection of supernatural explanations. Many will agree with him that the actual nature of human experience constitutes an empirical reason for rejecting the former, and many others, including most scientists, will agree with him that creationism will not fly.
The second reason is that he has framed the way to, and re-opened the topic of, a teleological factor in providing a transcendent internal understanding of who, what and why we are. With respect to this last reason, its importance, in my view, is that Nagel does not write from a base within those philosophical genres where this same subject of teleology in evolution and in the nature of life has already been put forward, but from within a genre of philosophy where such things are generally avoided like the plague. The evidence of this apparent neglect is that literally none of those thinkers whose views might be relevant (but whose views have been in recent times universally excluded from mainstream philosophical thought) are included in the index or mentioned in the book.
That said, I wish to devote the final paragraphs of this review to the latter, with whom Nagel has actually more in common than one might think. Uppermost in this respect is Nagel’s strong view to the effect that there must be a continuity in the evolution of consciousness from the earliest stages of the cosmos, i.e. from the moment of the Big Bang. In other words, living things have some degree of consciousness all the way back to the origin of life, and the laws of nature must have contained that potentiality throughout the course of time. This affirmation of continuity throughout the course of evolution such that the existence of consciousness in ourselves testifies to its presence, potential or actual, over the play of cosmic time really places Nagel’s tentative conclusions within the context of those past but presently persona non grata philosophers who agree with him and who place continuity at the heart of their own transcendent internal understanding of humankind.
For the sake of brevity, I will mention only a few of those individuals whose ideas seem not to have found their way even into a footnote in Nagel’s book. Offhand I would mention Henri Bergson (1911), American Pragmatists such as John Dewey (1929) (strongly influenced by Bergson), the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard (1955), and more recently Hans Jonas (1966), Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City from 1955-1976. All these individuals, each in their own way, impinge on the issue of natural teleology raised by Nagel and in this writer’s opinion each should be assessed and re-evaluated in terms of what they may provide for the discussion.
Bergson explores the nature of the continuity of time in living existence, which speaks to a different conception of time than that of the laws of physics. Dewey argues for continuity in the development of cognition over the course of evolution and at the same time insists that the salient features of experience cannot be denied by theory at the peril of impoverishing our self-understanding into a dead end of eternal dualism. Teilhard, while always under fire for his apparent view that there is a fixed goal of evolution in the dispensation of the Second Coming, nevertheless asserts in no uncertain terms that if consciousness is present in humankind, it must be present in potential or actual form from the beginning of time; and further that development must never come to absolute closure but must remain always open for further understanding – a telos more consistent with what Nagel feels has to be the case. And Jonas engages in a lengthy and detailed critique of the difference between “purpose” in a mechanism (i.e. the purpose built into its mechanical design) and the nature of purpose in biological teleology (Jonas 1966, Fifth Essay, esp. p. 126).
Bergson, of course, is accused of insupportable Vitalism. Dewey’s efforts seem to many to be antiquated and (unjustly) to smack of a form of behaviorism. The value of Teilhard’s overall theory is weakened by the appearance of its seemingly intentionalistic character despite the fact that his “Omega” telos is strangely non-supernatural in certain ways. As far as Jonas’s work goes, his analysis is concise, pointed and accurate, and he speaks in a language more accessible to those working within the contemporary philosophical genre.
In avoiding reference to these other views, Nagel achieves a valuable separation of his analysis from the sorts of knee-jerk criticisms to which they have been subjected. Yet I would suspect that elements from the views of these and similar thinkers must, in the event, necessarily fructify Nagel’s search for a viable articulation of his desire for a “natural teleology.”

This Review first appeared in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (2013).