Thomas Nagel: Idealism and the Theological Turn in the Sciences

The view that rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order makes me, in a broad sense, an idealist— not a subjective idealist, since it doesn’t amount to the claim that all reality is ultimately appearance— but an objective idealist in the tradition of Plato and perhaps also of certain post-Kantians, such as Schelling and Hegel, who are usually called absolute idealists. I suspect that there must be a strain of this kind of idealism in every theoretical scientist: pure empiricism is not enough.

– Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos

Now we know the truth of it, and why Thomas Nagel has such an apparent agenda to ridicule and topple the materialist world view that he seems to see as the main enemy of his own brand of neutral monism: a realist of the Idea, whether one call it mind or matter – it’s neutral. What’s sad is his attack on scientific naturalism and its traditions even comes to the point where he offers the conclusion that even religion upholds a more appropriate view of reality than the naturalist:

A theistic account has the advantage over a reductive naturalistic one that it admits the reality of more of what is so evidently the case, and tries to explain it all. But even if theism is filled out with the doctrines of a particular religion (which will not be accessible to evidence and reason alone), it offers a very partial explanation of our place in the world.(25)

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The Mind-Body Debates: Beginnings and Endings

Jaegwon Kim tells us it all started with two papers published a year apart in the late fifties: “The ‘Mental’ and the ‘Physical'” by Herbert Feigl in 1958 and “Sensations and Brain Processes ” by J. J. C. Smart the following year. Both of these men brought about a qualitative change in our approach to the study of the brain and its interactions with the physical substrate. Each of them proposed in independent studies an approach to the nature of mind that has come to be called the mind-body identity theory, central-state materialism, the brain state theory, or type physicalism. That the identity theory in itself would lose traction and other theories would come to the fore, the actual underlying structure of the debates would continue to be set by the framework they originally put in place. As Kim suggests:

What I have in mind is the fact that the brain state theory helped set the basic parameters and constraints for the debates that were to come – a set of broadly physicalist assumptions and aspirations that still guide and constrain our thinking today.1

This extreme form of reductionist Physicalism was questioned by the multiple realizability argument  of Hilary Putnum and the anomalous argument by Donald Davidson. At the heart of Putnum’s argument as the notion of functionalism, that mental kinds and properties are functional kinds at a higher level of abstraction than physicochemical or biological kinds. Davidson on the other hand offered the notion of anomalous monism that the mental domain, on account of its essential anomalousness and normativity , cannot be the object of serious scientific investigation, placing the mental on a wholly different plane from the physical. At first it seemed to many of the scientists of the era that these two approaches, each in its own distinctive way, made it possible for “us to shed the restrictive constraints of monolithic reductionism without losing our credentials as physicalists” (4). Yet, as it turned out this, too, did not last.

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Thomas Nagel: Constitutive Accounts – Reductionism and Emergentism

Thomas Nagel in his Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False starts from the premise that psychophysical reductionism, a position in the philosophy of mind that is largely motivated by the hope of showing how the physical sciences could in principle provide a theory of everything has failed to prove its case. As he states the case:

This is just the opinion of a layman who reads widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the nonspecialist. Perhaps that literature presents the situation with a simplicity and confidence that does not reflect the most sophisticated scientific thought in these areas . But it seems to me that, as it is usually presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense.1

You notice the sleight of hand was move from “unsupported” to “flies in the face of common sense”. He seems over an over in his book to fall back on this common sense doxa approach when he’s unable to come up with legitimate arguments, admitting his amateur status as “nonspecialist” as if this were an excuse; and, then qualifying his own approach against the perceived “sophisticated scientific literature” as a way of disarming it in preference to his own simplified and colloquial amateurism.  The sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology are the key sciences that he wishes to use to prove his case. Behind it is a notion of a philosophy of “neutral monism” that he seems to favor: he tells us he “favors some form of neutral monism over the traditional alternatives of materialism, idealism, and dualism” (KL 71-72). As he tells it: “It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this naïve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/ chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples.(KL 85-88)” To support his book’s overall theme he asks two major questions of the scientific community of reductionists:

First, given what is known about the chemical basis of biology and genetics, what is the likelihood that self-reproducing life forms should have come into existence spontaneously on the early earth, solely through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry? The second question is about the sources of variation in the evolutionary process that was set in motion once life began: In the available geological time since the first life forms appeared on earth, what is the likelihood that, as a result of physical accident, a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist?(KL 89-93)

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