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Science Dismisses Nagel Book with Faint Praise

Nagel.JPGKristina Musholt teaches in the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics and Political Science, serving also as Deputy Director of the Forum for European Philosophy. In Science, she reviews Thomas Nagel's Mind & Cosmos, which of course we've already discussed here in detail along with the no less interesting and revealing response from the Darwin Industrial Complex.

By now you're likely familiar with Nagel and the theme of his new book. Before reading what Mushold has to say, it's interesting to contemplate how Science, the leading journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), would treat a book whose subtitle is Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Of course they are not going to tolerate an attempt to topple Darwin from his exalted place in science, but neither can they in good conscience dismiss a cogently argued treatise from a noted atheist philosopher who self-evidently has no religious axe to grind.

What to do? Call the book "worth pondering," then dismiss it as "flawed." But why ponder a flawed book?

In her review, "A Flawed Challenge Worth Pondering," Musholt characterizes science in veiled god-of-the-gaps lingo: science is something that is "laying ever-increasing claims on questions once regarded as unanswerable by empirical means." This places Nagel as the next in a long line of hurdle-builders, challenging naturalism's inexorable progress, erecting a seemingly insurmountable hurdle: in this case, consciousness. It's not that this is a real hurdle, Musholt writes; it just seems to be: "Consciousness simply does not seem to be reducible to the functional role played by states or processes in the brain." (Emphasis added.)

Having thus positioned Nagel, Musholt admires his hurdle-construction, but sees naturalistic science as too big to fail. She briefly summarizes why Nagel discounts natural selection as capable of evolving consciousness, and why consciousness cannot be a mere "spandrel" (unintended by-product) of evolution. The hurdle looks impressive, she admits, but science cannot go back to Aristotelian final causes.

Thus, we are left with "a double mystery": We can explain neither the relation between the mental and the physical nor how or why consciousness evolved. According to Nagel, this should encourage us to look for a radical alternative to the "materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature." Indeed, Nagel believes that to make progress with regard to these questions, we need a major conceptual revolution akin to the scientific revolution itself. More precisely, he holds, we should consider the possibility that life and consciousness might not just be a result of the laws of physics and chemistry in combination with natural selection. What else might there be? Nagel does not give us much detail about the alternative he envisages; his aim is "to present the problem rather than to propose a solution." He does, however, point to the Aristotelian notion of "natural teleology" for a possible alternative -- that is, the idea that there is a purpose or direction in the evolution of life.
Dissatisfied with Nagel's appeal to teleology, she escapes into a kind of scientific mysticism that undermines her own position on scientific progress.
Although Nagel presents us with good reasons to reject reductionism (the view that everything that exists, including consciousness, can ultimately be explained in terms of physics), his claims for the necessity of a major scientific revolution are much less compelling. Indeed, whereas he takes reductionism to be the mainstream position in philosophy and science, Nagel is in fact far from being alone in making the case for antireductionism. Yet the fact that not every phenomenon is fully explicable in terms of physics does not imply that materialism (the view that everything that exists is ultimately physical) is false or that science is in need of radical overhaul. The problem of consciousness could be a conceptual problem, whose solution (or dissolution, as some philosophers would have it) simply falls outside the remit of empirical science.
Musholt has just admitted that consciousness might lie in the realm of concepts "outside the remit of empirical science." She has thus left a gaping hole in materialistic reductionism. But since science "might" some day overcome this hurdle, Musholt considers that sufficient reason to gently reject Nagel's position:
Moreover, it remains unclear why Nagel insists that evolutionary theory must demonstrate that the appearance of consciousness was something to be expected in order to render it intelligible. We have perfectly reasonable explanations for many events that were unlikely to occur but did. It remains even more unclear how the alternative that Nagel gestures toward is any more illuminating than the theories he rejects. Why should it be any less mysterious to think that consciousness is the result of teleological principles in addition to natural selection than that it is the unlikely (though not impossible) result of natural selection alone? That said, Nagel's arguments against reductionism should give those who are in search of a reductionist physical "theory of everything" pause for thought.
Stop at the hurdle, in other words, pause for thought, then simply step around it -- maintaining your faith in the power of natural selection. In the end, she concludes that "many aspects of Mind & Cosmos are problematic" -- a dismissive, unargued summary judgment that will leave some AAAS readers with the impression they can dismiss the book, except for the few who might want to "pause for thought" at the "the limits of science and as a reminder of the astonishing puzzle of consciousness." Musholt ends, "Whether or not you believe that this puzzle can ultimately be solved by science, it is certainly one worth thinking about." All the reader has to do, therefore, is take a short break, grab a cup of coffee, think about it, and then proceed as before with the naturalistic project. Some day science will render this hurdle surmountable like all the others before it.

To be sure, ID theorists like William Dembski have also found Nagel's teleology difficult to embrace. But the strength of Nagel's book is his devastating critique of Darwinian natural selection, its failure to account for the mind, cosmos, and life. Simply affirming scientific progress, as Musholt does, is not a response: it is a faith position contrary to the evidence that Nagel presents. So too are appeals to faith that natural selection "could" explain consciousness some day, or that the solution might lie in the conceptual realm outside the remit of empirical science.

By allowing for a conceptual realm outside the reach of empirical science, Musholt has essentially rendered materialistic reductionism incomplete and incoherent. Where did that conceptual realm come from? Indeed, where did philosophy and argumentation come from? If there are "limits to science," as she admits, then she has basically affirmed Nagel's position that consciousness, with all its aspects of thought, argumentation and philosophy, is inexplicable by physics and chemistry. This hurdle brings reductionist science to a standstill, casting doubt on why natural selection must be a conceptual requirement for scientific explanation.

That, indeed, is worth thinking about.