A Discussion of Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos

Today I had the pleasure of discussing Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False as part of a PEL Not School study group on the book. Joining me were Not Schoolers Neil Earnshaw and Jon Turner.

We discussed our dissatisfaction with with Nagel's argument that evolutionary naturalism fails to explain consciousness and therefore must be supplemented by a teleological explanation. In the next few days I'll be publishing a full review of the book.

If you're a Not School member (or as we like to say, PEL Citizen), you can access the audio of this discussion here (as well as a lengthy and interesting forum discussion on a number of issues, including Nagel's idea that the evolutionary development of consciousness is "implausible").

If you're not a member, please consider joining. For $5 a month you'll get access to regular audio discussions (above and beyond our regular podcast episode). As one Not Schooler put it about a recent discussion with Mark about Chalmers' The Conscious Mind, these can be "almost as good as a regular podcast." Membership also gets you access to study groups and discussion forums, all sorts of other bonus content, and the opportunity to participate in Skype/Google Hangout audio or video discussions yourself if you're interested (fame and/or notoriety await you). Read more about Not School and sign up.

-- Wes


  1. Profile photo of Bill Burgess says

    I listened to the interesting chat and it seemed to sum up the attitude of the rest of the PEL forum that Nagel fails. I have a little bit of a contrary view in that I think Nagel succeeds with what I perceived his stated goal to be.

    He said from the beginning that his goal was not to provide an alternative to materialist reductionism which characterizes current evolutionary theory, but only to show that it’s explanatory failures regarding consciousness and intuitive morality can be reasonably assumed to be inherent in the method rather than a function of incomplete research. In spite of his book title, I don’t think he means to show that continued adherence to the current method in hopes of closing the explanatory gaps is unreasonable–or even thinks this is the case.

    While his goal is not to propose a specific alternative to the current approach, he is proposing an alternative in current attitudes toward the current approach; he would replace dogmatism with skepticism to some degree or another.

    While I find him successful in his stated goals, I’m not convinced of his presuppositions which arise from a need of his that I do not share; I.E. the need for human morality to be vindicated by naturalism. It seems he feels it important that human values be another natural law, like gravity or the speed of light. I don’t see how such a thing is necessary, desirable, or even possible.

  2. John says

    Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find a completely different Understanding of the relation between Consciousness (Mind) and Energy (Cosmos) via these references.

    http://spiralledlight.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/4068 Space-Time IS Love-Bliss

    Plus following on from Wittgenstein


  3. Mathieu Fantonelle says

    I got from reading Nagel’s book that he thinks material science is unlikely to be able to account for consciousness from the current material point of view. And if consciousness exists then science gives an incomplete account of the world.
    Being unable to account for a central aspect of human life is not acceptable, so Nagel thinks we should
    presume that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon or emergent and secondary to matter. He wants to elevate consciousness into a thing in its own right that; a thing that is co-equal with the rest of the world.
    He advocates then investigating consciousness and the world and how they interact and forming a picture of the world.
    Seems to me Nagel is rather vague about how to go about this investigation and new imaging–the devils are in the details.
    That is what I got from Nagel–if I understand him correctly—
    Lee Smolin, the famous physicist, gave a lecture a while back (I think it’s still available on you tube) wherein he argued that the structure of the world is that of discreet events following one upon another—our common human experience of the world——-and he advocates thinking about moving in the direction of accounting for the world based upon that structure–a structure which I suppose has the advantage of being both the structure of the world and the structure of human experience.
    Smolin does not talk about “consciousness” and was vague about how to go about the task exactly. But really, I think he was indicating that human experience is important (what the hell else have we got?) and that physics should progress beyond the presumed split between world and mind. If we can have an approach that obviates the need for a consciousness versus a world, it would be better. If the world, including mental and physical (if we presume the split) assumes a structure that incorporates both–I say wonderful. The inescapable labyrinth of ambiguity, not to mention paradox, that results in assuming both that world is seen by subjective mind and that objectivity of the world is not a subjective thing—has been crazy making for hundreds of years–going back at least to the medieval realist/ nominalist clash.
    And if physics generally assumed Smolin’s vision as a basis for its task, it would at last be dealing with the implications of quantum physics, which integrates mind in any measurement. Since quantum physics theory is one of the most powerfully predictive ever, it is odd that much of physics rather ignores its profound implications.

    Perhaps Smolin’s vision is something that Nagel would approve.
    If I understand Smolin and Nagel correctly, their different visions both would bring subjective and objective together into one world.
    I think I favor Smolin’s vision most because it is so simple and elegant; less complications, it would seem.
    But both these visions are just that—and far from any real actualizaton. Gotta start somewhere.

  4. Steve Brazzale says

    Nagel says “And if physical science…. leaves us in necessarily in the dark about conciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world. There must be a very different way in which things as they are make sense, and that includes the physical world, since the problem cannot be quarantined in the mind.”

    But why MUST there be a different way things make sense? A single example of an alternative method of explination would help, but none is forthcoming.

    I find it useful to think of consciousness as arising from a kind of whirlwind going on in our cortex. Much like one in the atmosphere, there are currents coming in from the various senses nudging the locus of the eddie here and there. This locus is the centre of our attention. This model has various useful properties – the locus can be wide or narrow and have strengths from whirlwind to tornado – from focused attention to daydreaming (and even sleep?). With an intact corpus callosum part of the whirlwind would be across both halves of the cerebrum, but at times it may move entirely into one side. With a severed corpus callosum there would be two independent whirlwinds. The butterfly effect makes it as unpredictable as the weather – a slight movement in the visual field over here drags the locus of the storm slightly in that direction, and it feeds back – if its important it will link into other senses to do with that movement. One whirlwind is the unity of our consciousness. It is far too complex to predict, except in outline, much like the weather. So we see ourselves as having free-will from an internal point of view, because we “are” the whirlwind.

    This maybe a useful way of thinking about the emergence of consciousness but it can’t explain it.

    Understanding of how something works, or how some property arises relies on three viewpoints.
         (1) An overall (whole) view of the object or process concerned – ex the wetness of water; the French revolution
         (2) A reduced level of some of the parts and processes – ex – interaction of molecules, socioeconomic situation in France at the time,
          (3) We view both from our own conscious level – we stand back from both levels. Understanding involves awareness.
    Now when we try to understand our own consciousness we strike a problem. I cannot “see” anyone else’s consciousness directly – I can only infer it. I have only one direct view of consciousness – my own. In trying to understand what gives rise to consciousness, one doesn’t want to know what makes a person “appear” conscious; one wants to know what gives rise to the actual phenomena – I must therefore put my own personal consciousness on the stage. But I cannot do this. I cannot stand outside my own consciousness and look at it and its workings. The best I can manage is some reflections on myself, but then I am looking at myself in some detached way, that is not much better than observing someone else’s inferred consciousness. We cannot consciously observe our own consciousness as a whole. Therefore how consciousness arises from a mechanical mind is beyond comprehension, and so appears as emergent.


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