File under "Cosmology", "Philosophy of Mind".
I've recently finished with Thomas Nagel's recent book Mind and Cosmos and wanted to share my thoughts about it. Please bear in mind that I am not a professional philosopher and, therefore, welcome any corrections, questions, or concerns you may have. Really. I am, though, very happy to be part of the discussion. Really.
Nagel thinks there’s something missing within science’s picture of reality and is here broaching the topic after much reflection. He does assert the traditional belief in the coherence of the universe and its naturalistic physical laws but thinks that the holes in our understanding of our own origins, our faculty of reason, and the presence of the phenomenon of value suggest we may not yet be aware of all of them. His Mind and Cosmos addresses issues he perceives within the dominant Western paradigms of consciousness, cognition, and value as situated in our dominant cosmology/ontology and asserts them as problematic. The holes in each of these systems have been glossed over via what he terms “the Darwinism of the gaps”, and though they are not yet fully understood they are assumed to be within the realm of future understanding via the march of materialist reductionism. After attempting to address the causal and historical natures of consciousness and cognition as adaptive evolutionary artifacts he finds the evolutionary methodology lacking. The evolution of material beings which are self referential, introspective, and who act upon perceived systems of value is far too unlikely to have occurred by the currently held Darwinian process of natural selection - no matter how protracted. He asserts that value, ethics, etc., can not be natural evolutionary artifacts via arguments (shallow ones, though capable of being further developed) of irreducibility and historicity. It follows, he suggests, that value must be part of the cosmos as a natural law. He several times refers to evolution and the appearance of sentient creatures as a cosmic process of “the universe waking up to itself” and thereby seeks to learn by what process and which natural laws this must proceed. After entertaining several possibilities including pan-psychism and intelligent creation, he lands on a sort of Aristotelian natural teleology as the most likely. This would suggest a universe which was slowly organizing itself into structures which favor complexity, consciousness, reason, and ultimately the appearance of value. With this in mind he chooses to embrace an objective, value realist perspective over a constructivist/subjectivist value system as said natural teleology offers value itself as an integral element of the cosmos.
It is laudable that Nagel is seeking to dig under the rug, as it were, to point out that there are still many as-yet un-plumbed questions and as-yet undiscovered truths regarding the nature of our cosmos and its relationship to conscious, reasoning, and value-driven creatures. The fact that these questions are often glossed over is certainly problematic and the “Darwinism of the gaps” is likely an act of hubris. To believe that in only a few centuries of “enlightened” scientific progress we as a species have chosen the right assumptions about the cosmos and developed the tools to understand not only ourselves and our universe, but also our place in said universe would be foolish. Regardless of his book’s outlandish suggestions or admitted faults, his point that the truth of the matter is likely far less intuitive than we can guess will likely prove correct. Our current understanding of ourselves will likely in a few centuries appear as outmoded and fallacious as the theory of phlogiston.
Nagel’s assertion of the reality and subsequent problem of qualia as uniquely real subjective phenomena not explainable by reductionist claims is problematic (See Dennett’s take-down of qualia in Sweet Dreams, particularly the “What RoboMary Knows” chapter.) It would be just as well, and less problematic, if Nagel were to appeal to the problem of value and not bring up the qualia argument. This appeal to qualia and his favoritism of the value-realist platform over the subjectivist is based on an intuitive hunch and not on methodologically sound reasoning. This is, of course, a big problem, though one he admits. Finally, Nagel’s assertion of value as an elemental law of the universe - part of his proposed natural teleology - forwards an interesting possibility for philosophy of aesthetics. If value and self-organizing tendencies toward sophistication and coherence were elements of the cosmos, a grounding for universal ideas of beauty, truth, and goodness would seem far less naive than they currently might in a constructivist/subjectivist worldview.
Nagel might not be right on all counts here. He's stepping on lot of toes, he's making rather wild and difficult-to-support suggestions, but he's forwarding a necessary discussion and humbly inviting argument. This little work is well worth the read and will, I'd bet, place Nagel on the "Thinkers who were on the right track" lists of the future.