Sunday, February 17, 2013

Thomas Nagel and the Quest for a New Scientific Paradigm

The American philosopher Thomas Nagel's most recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, has generated a lot of criticism from the scientific community. According to The Guardian (UK), Mind and Cosmos was the most despised science book of 2012.

Among the most vocal critics have been philosophers Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg (The Nation), Steven Pinker (who tweeted, "What has gotten into Thomas Nagel? Two philosophers expose the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker" in response to the review in The Nation), and John Dupré (University of Exeter), whose review in NDPR included the comment, "I found this book frustrating and unconvincing."

I have just started the book, but I find his basic tenet - that scientific reductionism leaves a lot to be desired, especially in terms of dealing with the origins of life and the nature of consciousness - not only useful, but important if we are ever to move beyond the current materialist model that dominates science.

This is from Elliott Sober's Boston Review article about the book:
In his new and far-reaching book Mind and Cosmos, Nagel extends his attack on materialistic reductionism—which he describes as the thesis that physics provides a complete explanation of everything—well beyond the mind-body problem. He argues that evolutionary biology is fundamentally flawed and that physics also needs to be rethought—that we need a new way to do science. 
Nagel’s new way is teleological—scientific explanations need to invoke goals, not just mechanistic causes. The conventional story of the emergence of modern science maintains that Galileo and Newton forever banished Aristotle’s teleology. So Mind and Cosmos is an audacious book, bucking the tide. Nagel acknowledges that he has no teleological theory of his own to offer. His job, as he sees it, is to point to a need; creative scientists, he hopes, will do the heavy lifting. 
Nagel’s rejection of materialistic reductionism does not stem from religious conviction. He says that he doesn’t have a religious bone in his body. The new, teleological science he wants is naturalistic, not supernaturalistic. This point needs to be remembered, given that the book begins with kind words for proponents of intelligent design. Nagel applauds them for identifying problems in evolutionary theory, but he does not endorse their solution.
Nagel argues that the more we learn about biology, physics, and the universe, the less well the current models of science are able to explain things adequately.

One of his biggest issues is with evolution. He finds it difficult to believe that chance mutations have created the complexity and diversity of life now existing on Earth. And of course, it's not that simple once we get outside of materialist science, but people such as Richard Dawkins are the mainstream of evolutionary theory and this is their model. E.O. Wilson's sociobiology and the field of epigenetics add considerable depth to the evolutionary model, not to mention emergence theory (a central element in the development of complex adaptive systems, like humans).

Even more difficult for Nagel is the idea that chance is responsible for the origins of life on Earth (from Chapter One):
With regard to the origin of life, the problem is much harder, since the option of natural selection as an explanation is not available. And the coming into existence of the genetic code—an arbitrary mapping of nucleotide sequences into amino acids, together with mechanisms that can read the code and carry out its instructions—seems particularly resistant to being revealed as probable given physical law alone.(5)
In his recent column at NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, philosopher Alva Noë sides with Nagel:
To my mind it is foolish to cast it as a standoff between those who embrace science and admit its stunning achievements and those who reject the project of natural science itself. It is not a conflict between those who know and those who are confused. Some critics of Nagel's book adopt this pose, as if this were some kind of episode in our culture wars.  
The issue at stake is internal to science. We have not yet integrated an account of ourselves into our understanding of nature. And so our conception of nature itself is, or threatens to be, incomplete.
An article in the New York Times that looked at the controversy and hostility the book has created also quoted Noë:
“He is questioning a certain kind of orthodoxy, and they are responding in the way the orthodox respond,” said Alva Noë, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, who gave the book a rare positive, if not uncritical, notice on NPR’s Web site.
In his October review of Nagel's book (also included was Evan Thompson's Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, a fascinating and important book that argues where there is life, there is mind: "life and mind share common principles of self-organization, and the self-organizing features of mind are an enriched version of the self-organizing features of life"), Noë makes the following observation:
The scientific revolution took its impulse from what the philosopher Bernard Williams called the Absolute Conception of Reality. This is a conception of the world as "it really is" entirely apart from how it appears to us: a colorless, odorless value-free domain of particles and complexes moving in accordance with timeless and immutable mathematical laws. The world so conceived has no place for mind in it. No intention. No purpose. If there is mind — and of course the great scientific revolutionaries such as Descartes and Newton would not deny that there is mind — it exists apart from and unconnected to the material world as this was conceived of by the New Science. 
If modern science begins by shaping a conception of the cosmos, its subject matter, in such a way as to exclude mind and life, then it shouldn't come as a surprise that we can't seem to find a place for them in the natural order so conceived.
Rather than accept a universe - a cosmos - that is inherently void of life and mind, Nagel depicts a universe “gradually waking up” through the emergence of consciousness, an idea with which adherents of Ken Wilber's integral theory will be all too familiar. In fact, Wilber and Nagel tend to share a similar view on the current state of science:
I am not alone is seeing that chance and natural selection by themselves are not enough to account for the emergence that we see in evolution. Stuart Kauffman and many others have criticized mere change and natural selection as not adequate to account for this emergence (he sees the necessity of adding self-organization). Of course I understand that natural selection is not acting on mere randomness or chance—because natural selection saves previous selections, and this reduces dramatically the probability that higher, adequate forms will emerge. But even that is not enough, in my opinion, to account for the remarkable emergence of some of the extraordinarily complex forms that nature has produced. After all, from the big bang and dirt to the poems of William Shakespeare is quite a distance, and many philosophers of science agree that mere chance and selection are just not adequate to account for these remarkable emergences. The universe is slightly tilted toward self-organizing processes, and these processes—as Prigogine was the first to elaborate—escape present-level turmoil by jumping to higher levels of self-organization, and I see that "pressure" as operating throughout the physiosphere, the biosphere, and the noosphere. And that is what I metaphorically mean when I use the example of a wing (or elsewhere, the example of an eyeball) to indicate the remarkableness of increasing emergence. But I don't mean that as a specific model or actual example of how biological emergence works! Natural selection carries forth previous individual mutations—but again that just isn’t enough to account for creative emergence (or what Whitehead called “the creative advance into novelty,” which, according to Whitehead, is the fundamental nature of this manifest universe). 
— Ken Wilber, "Re: Some Criticisms of My Understanding of Evolution"
Wilber also argues that cosmological evolution involves the universe becoming aware of itself through consciousness, human consciousness to be precise - an idea similar to the teleological perspective Nagel advocates for in his book.
"Maybe the evolutionary sequence really is from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit, each transcending and including, each with a greater depth and greater consciousness and wider embrace. And in the highest reaches of evolution, maybe, just maybe, an individual's consciousness does indeed touch infinity - a total embrace of the entire Kosmos - a Kosmic consciousness that is Spirit awakened to its own true nature. 
-- A Brief History of Everything, p. 38
This, to me, seems to reach too far (although I remain agnostic on this point). It does not seem necessary to invoke a universe becoming conscious of itself through the evolution of consciousness and spirit in order to explain the complexity of life and consciousness on Earth.

On the whole, however, I support Nagel's critique of modern science, and modern is the key word. While nearly all other disciplines have moved from the modern into the postmodern, with even some having moved into the post-postmodern, the hard sciences remain firmly entrenched in a rationalist, reductionist, modernist perspective.

That needs to change.
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