Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Thomas Nagel and the Inadequacy of Materialism

Thomas Nagel is a prominent philosopher who once wrote that he didn't want God to exist. It wasn't just that he didn't believe that God existed, it was that he didn't want God to exist. Stern stuff, but despite that earlier sentiment he seems recently, perhaps, to have taken a step closer to changing his mind. He's now arguing that materialism is a philosophically inadequate and sterile metaphysics and that there must be something more to evolutionary history and cosmology than just physics.

This will be seen by many of his fellow atheists as a scandalous betrayal, leading as it does to intimations of the Divine, but he feels so strongly about it that he's written a soon-to-be-released book on the topic. The volume is titled Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False and is published by Oxford University Press. Nagel argues in the book, inter alia, that materialism simply cannot explain the phenomena of consciousness.

Here's the publisher's blurb:
In Mind and Cosmos Thomas Nagel argues that the widely accepted world view of materialist naturalism is untenable. The mind-body problem cannot be confined to the relation between animal minds and animal bodies. If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.

Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history.

An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. No such explanation is available, and the physical sciences, including molecular biology, cannot be expected to provide one.

The book explores these problems through a general treatment of the obstacles to reductionism, with more specific application to the phenomena of consciousness, cognition, and value. The conclusion is that physics cannot be the theory of everything.
I think it's fair to sum up the implications of Nagel's thinking with a simple syllogism:
1. Either the universe is ultimately the product of mind or it is solely the product of natural forces acting on matter.
2. It is not solely the product of natural forces acting upon matter (Nagel's argument).
3. Therefore, the universe is ultimately the product of mind.
If this is indeed the conclusion toward which Nagel is listing a lot of New Atheists will be sorely vexed.

Racism and Double Standards

When Washington, D.C. Councilman Marion Barry offered his opinion recently that Asian shopkeepers should get out of D.C. the racial geiger counters in the liberal media registered hardly a click. Perhaps that's because although most of the racist rhetoric nowadays, particularly the most vicious forms of it, is coming from the (Listen to this if you can stomach the hatred) black community it's not politically correct to make a big deal of it, and besides everybody's pretty much grown accustomed to it.

Here's what Barry said:
We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops. They ought to go. I’m going to say that right now. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.
It's only when a white, preferably a Republican, makes a relatively mild or innocuous comment like Trent Lott made in comforting Strom Thurmond, the former segregationist, on his 100th birthday that he'd have made a great president, or when George Allen refers to a swarthy Middle-eastern heckler as "macaca", or when a "white Hispanic" who's getting his head bashed against the concrete shoots his black attacker, that the progressive left and the race-hustlers go ballistic.

When the former D.C. mayor says he wants Asians out of the black community so that blacks can take over their businesses, that's scarcely worth a comment on the evening talk shows. Does Barry really think that if Asians leave his neighborhood that their businesses will be taken over by African-Americans? Why are there so few African-American businesses now in a community that's almost 95% black?

Barry laments that shopkeepers and restauranteurs in D.C. have been first Jews, then Italians, and now Asians, but why haven't African-Americans stepped up and started businesses of their own? What's stopping them? Racism? That excuse is getting very tired, very fast.


On a perhaps not completely unrelated note this video describes some amazing advances in biotechnology:
What does the video have to do with Marion Barry's racism? Well, Ada Poon, the scientist featured in the video, the scientist who is developing a technology that may someday save Marion Barry's life, appears to be an Asian. I wonder what Mr. Barry thinks about that.