Can the Human Mind Explain Itself?

by Terry Scambray

New Oxford Review

A Review of Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Thomas Nagel. Oxford University Press, 2012.  128 pages.  $24.95

In Mind & Cosmos, the highly regarded philosopher Thomas Nagel can’t make up his mind about how to explain his own mind and the minds of the rest of us. However, he is sure that the materialist explanation of mind is, well, merely a mental construct or as he writes,  it “is almost certainly false.”

In his longest chapter called “Consciousness”, Nagel, a  professor of  philosophy and law at New York University,  recounts how the “mind-body problem” arose out of  the 17th century scientific revolution” which necessarily involved reducing things down to their tiniest physical and chemical parts and then discovering what made them tick.

But can such “scientific” reductionism be applied to the mind and consciousness ?  Not really because applying quantitative measurements to the unquantifiable is actually a misapplication which results in a degenerative form of science sometimes called, “scientism”.   And “scientism” is but another example of  the adage: If you are devoted to using a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.

Yes, it remains paradoxical that science has never been able to objectify something essential to its entire enterprise, mind or consciousness, which, as Nagel writes, is that “aspect of mental phenomena that is evident from the first person, inner point of view which tells you how  sugar tastes, red looks or how anger feels”, and how to fairly and accurately evaluate a scientific experiment.

Of course, the mind body conundrum is a perennial issue which thinkers found puzzling even a long time prior to the 17th century.   Nonetheless,  Nagel yearns for a “unified world picture” which would necessarily have to include the mind and the cosmos, a goal which  he oddly refers to as “utopian”.

Perhaps he thinks of this goal as “utopian” because as he concedes, “theories of everything” are restricted because science currently limits itself  to material causes whereas the mind is an immaterial, immeasurable, unrestricted free agent.

Despite this limitation, Nagel ambitiously remarks that “the more encompassing a theory is, the more powerful it has to be.”   For this reason  he hopes that “a major conceptual revolution at least as radical as relativity theory or the original scientific revolution itself”  will be discovered which will make the mind and consciousness amenable to scientific inspection.

Whether quantum theory, as one example, can help to explain mind is discussed by the always worthwhile Raymond Tallis in his exhaustive 2011 book,  Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.   As Tallis puts it, quantum theory seems to solve problems that the classical understanding of the material world failed to solve because  “with quantum theory spooky things appear to happen at a distance from one another, particles have no absolute position,” features that remind us of our non-material minds.

But this too is a cul-de-sac.  For the extraordinary behavior of matter assumes an observer which is the “object” that this theorizing intends to explain in the first place.

As Tallis, a “humanist atheist” like Nagel, concludes:  “There is at present nothing in matter as understood through natural sciences  – no, not even in the wildest reaches of quantum mechanics – that would lead one  to expect matter to assume forms so that it might be able to formulate universal laws that encompass its own existence.”

Regardless,  Nagel’s hoped for explanation of mind, be it a revolutionary concept or science fiction, whichever, is not clarified enough so that one can only guess at what he has in his own mind.   So the perennial question remains: Can the human mind explain itself, ever ?

I can’t imagine how.  Only something outside of  itself and smarter and more encompassing than itself can explain itself, which I always thought philosophers were put on the payroll to remind us of.  After all, thinkers from Socrates to the present have discussed this limitation not to mention other human limits; and consummate writers going back to the Old Testament, Homer and on up to Dante, Shakespeare as well as moderns like Proust and Joyce, the latter two in a streaming and grainy way, have tried to convey that inner mental voice which each of us solitarily hears.   Even at that, as we read these and other writers, we are relying, inescapably, on our own isolated minds, once again.

Nagel’s probes or “speculations”, the word he consistently uses, are characteristic of the style of much of the book which is sketchy when it isn’t down right contradictory.

For example,  while he trashes Darwinian natural selection as a phony explanation for how minds were made, nonetheless, he continues to believe that natural selection has explanatory power.   And though he correctly understands that a materialist explanation of mind destroys any notion of “values” while skewing even the baked in imperatives of logic, nonetheless, he sees Darwinian evolution as the only credible support for materialistic solutions to all the big issues, including the mind problem.

And while he is grateful to individuals like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer for showing the weaknesses in evolutionary explanations,  Nagel notes that they both “are motivated at least in part by their religious beliefs.”   And whereas David Berlinski is also given a pat on the head for dissecting Darwin’s theory without having ulterior “religious” motives, he is also commended for refraining from advocating design.

Apparently Dr. Nagel, wants to have his cake and eat it too.  Read, for example, this sentence of his:  “Those who have seriously criticized these arguments have certainly shown that there are ways to resist the design conclusion; but the general force of the negative part of the intelligent design position  – skepticism about the likelihood of the orthodox reductive view, given the available evidence – does not appear to me to have been destroyed in these exchanges.”

Hard to track ?

Definitely.  And that’s because “seriously criticized” and “certainly shown” are pumped up phrases which go flat when followed by swarming, confusing negatives like “negative part . .  . skepticism of the likelihood . . . does not appear . . . to have been destroyed . .  .”

While we do get the point that the design argument deserves consideration,  the gummy syntax of this sentence is representative of  the style of much of the book.

Nagel follows up this sentence with the limp observation, “At least, the question should be regarded as open.”   But, really, are there any worthwhile questions that are not open?

Yet I do find this book interesting for several reasons despite its equivocations.

For one thing, Nagel offers a good, brief history of the failures of the various materialistic ways of explaining mind, including assorted behaviorisms which try to sandwich the mind and brain together into one neat entity so as to analyze it as a physical, chemical entity.

But as Nagel points out, the mind and brain are not like water which is composed of H2O and without which water could not exist.  And this is because the taste and feel of water “seem to be something extra, contingently  related to the brain state – something produced rather than constituted by the brain state,  So it cannot be identical to the brain state in the way that water is identical to H2O.”

Thus the iconic French philosopher,  Rene Descartes’ classical distinction between mind / body “dualism introduced at the birth of modern science may be harder to get out of than many people have imagined.”   And because this knot is so difficult to untie, some thinkers simply want to discard mental events, calling them illusions.   Nagel disagrees; he  thinks that if we want a unified picture of reality, we will have to abandon materialism and face the fact that, “Conscious subjects and their mental lives are inescapable components of reality not describable by the physical sciences.”

Nagel also correctly realizes that Darwinian materialism is incompatible with the existence of  rational minds.   Darwin, equivocal as he also was, never squared this circle though he touches on this contradiction in On the Origin of  Species where he wonders about the reliability of his own mind since he thought that it had evolved from an ape’s mind.   C.S. Lewis also saw that if  mind is an accidental accretion of matter, then it could not be trusted.  In our own day, Phillip Johnson, the law professor, and Alvin Plantinga, the philosopher, have also persuasively shown that materialistic determinism is self refuting;  that is, if our brains are a stew of particles, stirred around by physical forces, then we are automatons without free will and a desire for truth so, once again,  our ideas would be unreliable. Strangely for a philosopher, Nagel does not understand that Darwinian evolution is materialist philosophy masquerading as science.  That is,  evolution is not supported by “empirical evidence” as Nagel thinks, but rather the findings in paleontology, embryology and genetics contradict evolution.    Evolution, as it turns out,  is supported by a materialist philosophy that restricts “science” to offering only material explanations for phenomena, the very same limitation that Nagel correctly sees as restricting explanations for mind and consciousness!

However, since Nagel thinks that evolution is empirically supported, he attacks it through its metaphysical backdoor.  As he puts it, “since moral realism is true, a Darwinian account of  the motives underlying moral judgment must be false, in spite of the scientific consensus in favor of it.”

But where does Nagel’s faith in “moral realism”, which is to say absolutes, originate if he still clings to a materialist explanation like evolution ?   Is his belief in absolutes something subjective, a mental construct, a premise that others can share with him only as a matter of faith?

I wonder how Nagel and his colleagues in the academy would react to this argument, “Since God is real, a materialistic, Darwinian account of  origins based on natural selection must be false” ?

This argument is stronger than Nagel’s because Christianity offers a narrative, an ontology as well as a teleology which has been particularly energized in the last 100 years by the discovery in the organic cell of millions of  molecular parts whose complex, information rich features are difficult to square with a materialistic, step-by-step mechanical explanation like Darwinian evolution.

For that matter, the complexity of cellular life is widely discussed.  Take the November 2012 edition of Nature, perhaps the world’s most respected science journal, in which a University of California neuroscientist, Alysson Muotri, comments on the uniqueness of the human brain in comparison to other complex organs like the heart and liver. As Professor Muotri remarks, “We look at the brain and we think about the tissue, but actually it seems like lots of tissues in one, because the cells are so heterogeneous. It’s almost like every cell was there for a purpose.”

I offer this quote as only a handy, current example of a scientist remarking on the purposefulness found in nature.   For during the last 100 years as science has amassed an increasing amount of knowledge, statements like this occur  frequently in the literature of the life sciences and cosmology especially,  not to mention other disciplines.

Professor Nagel, apparently, has an aversion to design even though  he understands the limitations of a materialist world view.  Perhaps the reason  he fails to see this limitation is the same reason that he wrongly associates intelligent design with “religious” belief and also the reason that he slights traditional teleology, trying as he does to wedge in “natural teleology” as an  explanation for the symmetry in nature that he heartily concedes is “biased toward the marvelous.”

His rationale for his neo-materialist position is that he “lacks the sensus divinitatis that enables – indeed compels – so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose .  .  .”

But this self imposed limit is ironic, indeed, considering that  Nagel’s major theme is that  mental states are non-transferable.  That is,  “I gotta’ be me ! “  (Can you “hear” Sammy Davis, Jr.  belting this out ?!)   And, likewise, “You gotta’ be you“.  So perhaps Professor Nagel ought  to get inside the sensus divinitatis before he concludes that he is ill fitted for that necessarily subjective role, as all mental states irreducibly are.

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