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A Defense of Nagel, Part II

A Side Note on the Job of the Philosopher Regarding Evolutionary Biology

After the introduction, Nagel’s book can be separated into two theses: first, that materialist reductionism cannot account for the intelligibility of nature: since one can actually know something about the world in the subjective mind, one cannot say the life of the mind is really separable from the universe: the external world is imbued with an intrinsic intelligibility (Nagel sees that this would be a failure of reductionist materialism, and that it suggests “a genuine alternative to the reductionist program would require an account of how mind and everything that goes with it is inherent in the universe”1); second, that the subjective life of human consciousness (the existence of mental states),2 cognition (“mental functions such as thought, reasoning, and evaluation”)3, and value (with regard to the aesthetic, moral, and factual realm)4 cannot be explained by the current methods of science, and if science is to be all-encompassing, a kind of paradigm shift is required. [I remain agnostic as to whether science should adapt their methods to encompass teleology within nature, but I would articulate that the philosophy which interprets the scientific data should comprise an understanding of the immanent order of nature.]

In contrast, Leiter and Weisberg write that “mechanistic explanations and an abandonment of supernatural causality proved enormously fruitful in expanding our ability to predict and control the world around us.” They mention that the fruits of modern science have allowed technological innovation such as sending probes to Mars and prevention of disease as a justification for the mechanistic paradigm.5 Leiter and Weisberg refer to Nagel justifying his position by saying the findings of science are at odds with common sense. While this misunderstands Nagel, the critique requires two responses.

First, the methods of science have been great, but one should not confuse the practical fruits of scientific theories with the metaphysical assumptions of scientific and philosophical thinkers. One’s worldview should be consistent with the date of scientific discovery. Yet as Lawrence Sklar points out, “it is a great mistake to read off a metaphysics superficially from the theory’s overt appearance, and an even greater mistake to neglect the fact that metaphysical presuppositions have gone into the formulation of the theory, as it is usually framed, in the first place.”6 Many individuals can claim science has resolved long-standing issues in philosophy, or shown certain views to be untenable. For instance, one often enough finds in the scientific literature that quantum mechanics refutes that ‘all events have a cause’; that idea would ignore the ten different interpretations of quantum mechanics, all of which are consistent with the date. Sklar notes sometimes even contradicting “sides of a philosophical debate claim that a general theory resolves an issue in their favor.” Metaphysical assumptions can be found in a scientific theory, and likewise can be rooted out of the theory when doing philosophy of science.7

Likewise, much contemporary biology is interpreted and influenced by ideology.8 To illustrate, notable scientific writers on biology, like Daniel Dennett (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, 1996) and Richard Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design, 1986) exemplify the tendency among some popular biology writers to confuse their philosophical naturalism with the actual science; hence they arrive unsurprisingly at the non-scientific statement that “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”9 This metaphysical assumption of reductive materialism is not compelled by the methods of science” to accept a material explanation of our phenomenological experience of the world. Rather, as the materialist Richard Lewontin admits, materialists “ are forced by an a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations.”10 So the job of the philosopher is then to interpret the data and distinguish it from hidden metaphysical assumptions derived from any a priori adherences, such as the epistemological or metaphysical naturalism found within the writings of Dennett, Dawkins, and Lewontin.

Nagel’s Point on the Subjective Life

Second, Nagel’s whole point is not that reductionist materialism should be rejected because it is contrary to common sense. Rather Nagel’s main goal is not to refute reductive materialism, but “to explore the consequences of its being false.”11 He has particularly argued against materialistic reductionism in The View from Nowhere12 and in his celebrated essay, “What is it like to be a bat?”13 In the latter he writes that any physical object “has a more objective character than is revealed in its visual appearance.”14 One then creates a scientific model from our measurements of the physical object’s quantifiable qualities. It hidden qualities we hypothesize about. The external world of objects is one of appearances, of “seeming” to be a certain way. Science does away with this seeming. The bat is de-subjectified, which means the methods of science are unable to obtain a material explanation of the phenomenal life since the very method of the physical sciences is to disregard intentions, volitions, and desires. Hence one can know everything about the physics, biochemistry, and neurophysiology of a bat, and never from that information be able to deduce what it is like to be a bat: the bat has a privacy to its phenomenological experience, if it has such experience, that is inaccessible to external observers. Transfer this to the human being, But the methods of science cannot do the same for the scientist creating the model: science has no access to the experience of what it is like to be a scientist. The methods of science cannot focus on the subjective experience of the physical organism doing the observation, just as one cannot directly access any possible subjective experience of a bat. The physical sciences can describe “our structure and behavior in space and time” like “a purely physical description of the neurophysiological processes that give rise to an experience, and also of the physical behavior that is typically associated with it.” They cannot, however, describe the subjective essence of the experiences of us being organisms or how the world appears to our different particular points of view, i.e. “how it is from the point of view of its subject—without which it would not be a conscious experience at all.”15 [More pointedly, in her book, Saving Belief: A Critique of Physicalism (1988), Lynn Ruder Baker argues that within the naturalist paradigm, human life as it is lived is something mysterious; it is almost a miracle of the everyday that we experience life this specific way. It is not what we would expect given naturalism.16 Human behaviour is unintelligible given ontological naturalism if the mechanistic world-picture were all that we had.]

I recount Nagel’s 1974 paper because his argument in Mind and Cosmos should be seen within the same argumentative framework. The life of the human subject is something private, away from the public view and hence cannot be objectified. As Roger Scruton writes,

As a conscious subject, I have a point of view on the world. The world seems a certain way to me, and this “seeming” defines my unique perspective. Every self-conscious being has such a perspective; this is what it means to be a subject rather than an object. When I give a scientific account of the world, however, I am describing only objects. I am describing the way things are, and the causal laws that explain the way things are. This description is given from no particular perspective. It does not contain words like “here,” “now,” and “I”; and while it is meant to explain the way things seem, it does so by giving a theory of how they are.17

The subject is by principle unobservable to science since it is removed methodologically from the testable world. So, Nagel writes elsewhere, the problem for understanding consciousness is “one of opposition between subjective and objective points of view”: the tendency to create an object-dependent account of everything (without admitting prior to such an account the subjective life that makes such an objective account possible) cannot account for what it presupposes: a subject-dependent account of the world.Either “the objective conception of the world is incomplete, or the subjective involves illusions that should be rejected.”18 Yet how can the view from the experience of being a subject be called illusory? Without my being a subject, nothing can be actual for me since without subjectivity I have a view from nowhere. Thus I would have no view of the world, and therefore no world to be seen since I am not.19 The replacement is a real view from somewhere. Naturalism prefers otherwise.

Even Patricia Churchland admits that from her naturalist perspective,

there is a fatal tendency to think of the brain as essentially a fact finding business…Looked at from an evolutionary point of view, the principle function of nervous systems is to the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive…Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes hindmost.20

For Nagel, neither the quale experience of being a subject nor the intrinsic intelligibility of the external physical world is sufficient condition to fully rebut the reductionist project. Rather, through thought, the dual aspects of the subject’s “capacity to transcend subjectivity and to discover what is objectively the case” (given that we have an innate capacity to form true beliefs about the external world, eternal truths of logic and math, and moral and aesthetic truths) presents a problem for the reductionist and, in general, reductive naturalist.21


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Ryan Shinkel

Ryan Shinkel

Ryan Shinkel is a current undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, studying philosophy, creative writing, and literature. He aspires to be a philosopher and a writer. Ryan is a Christian believer. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, 'I am a Roman Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature, and a Burkean in politics.'

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