Weisberg and Leiter's review of Thomas Nagel's new book Mind and Cosmos

Read it here. Weisberg and Leiter are pretty harsh, but I see no evidence that they are being unfair to Nagel’s argumentation (or lack thereof).

“We conclude with a comment about truth in advertising. Nagel’s arguments against reductionism are quixotic, and his arguments against naturalism are unconvincing. He aspires to develop “rival alternative conceptions” to what he calls the materialist neo-Darwinian worldview, yet he never clearly articulates this rival conception, nor does he give us any reason to think that “the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” Mind and Cosmos is certainly an apt title for Nagel’s philosophical meditations, but his subtitle—”Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”—is highly misleading. Nagel, by his own admission, relies only on popular science writing and brings to bear idiosyncratic and often outdated views about a whole host of issues, from the objectivity of moral truth to the nature of explanation. No one could possibly think he has shown that a massively successful scientific research program like the one inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “is almost certainly false.” The subtitle seems intended to market the book to evolution deniers, intelligent-design acolytes, religious fanatics and others who are not really interested in the substantive scientific and philosophical issues. Even a philosopher sympathetic to Nagel’s worries about the naturalistic worldview would not claim this volume comes close to living up to that subtitle. Its only effect will be to make the book an instrument of mischief.”

Their reaction to Nagel’s book subtitle resonates with my earlier remarks that such a title was ridiculous for a serious philosophical book and only serves as a marketing ploy to excite anti-science and ID believers.



Filed under Books, Random

5 responses to “Weisberg and Leiter's review of Thomas Nagel's new book Mind and Cosmos

  1. Maybe?

    Honestly Gary, Nagel could be on to something. I will give you a good example of where atheists may get it wrong. Earlier you did a post on the “Immorality of the Catholic Confessional” in which you put forth a hypothetical argument. http://philosophyandpsychology.com/?p=2182

    Even if one denies the virgin birth, miracles and resurrection, what was true in those days was crucifixion. The Romans were geniuses of state and also geniuses of torture. Crucifixion was a crime by which people suffocated by the force of gravity and you could be crucified for crimes against the emperor who was considered a god even if he was a perverted idiot. My point is that the inviolate seal of the confessional finds its origin in the sovereignty of church over state. Although one can argue the violation of human rights by the church, the state was a greater and vaster violator of human rights during the last 2000 years.

    So my point? Its hard to deny 2000 years of church history and how it has shaped human civilization. i.e. most western foundational institutions of learning, Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard etc. find their origins in church orders. To deny the church its place in western learning and the teleological arguments may be an error.

    Church vs State? Rent the old movie “Becket” starring two great actors Richard Burton (Becket) and Peter O’Toole (Henry II). After Henry II makes his friend Thomas Becket Archbishop of Canterbury for personal and political reasons, it turns into “something else”. Its just as much Henry’s story and struggle with his mind as Becket’s with his conscious.

    Just like Nagel’s teleological argument, it’s all about the human mind.

    • Gary Williams

      I don’t see what the causal influence of “the church” (although there has never been such a monolithic entity) has to do with the truth of physicalism or evolutionary theory (which Nagel takes himself to be showing to be “almost certainly false”). The last 2000 years of church history pales in comparison to the causal influence of the last tens of thousands of years of primordial religious thinking, which is characterized by beliefs in animate spirits, dead relatives, and divine beings playing a causal role in the natural world as well as ritualistic behavior in response to such beliefs. Evolutionary theory provides a “debunking” explanation for religious belief that undercuts its claim for special religious authority along with the unique epistemological role of divine revelation in securing its epistemic rationality. Evolutionary theory says such thinking styles were either direct adaptive benefits (perhaps aiding in the development of civilization as some archaeologists think) or side-effects of some other system that was (e.g. prey-predator agency detectors, theory of mind, and language). No one denies the causal influence of religious thinking in western learning. But we don’t actually need to think that religious thought maps onto any divine reality; instead, we can view religious belief as a product of evolutionary and cultural mechanisms that were once adaptive or side-effects of adaptive systems.

  2. I’ve long since taken to reading Nagel ‘symptomatically,’ as providing important clues as to the kinds of default intuitions we are prone to given the various informatic constraints faced by deliberative reflection. On my view his arguments, no matter how bad they seem, provide a *living* example of how we *all* thought, not so very long ago. He’s relying on some pretty basic cognitive heuristics that we have since learned to suspend, simply because we’ve come to realize that they’re not ‘matched’ (in the ecological rationality sense) to the kinds of problems we’re interested in. But we have yet to develop a clear sense of what these heuristics and their scope of problem-solving applicability are. Bad arguments, I think anyway, can provide indirect yet invaluable information pertaining to both.

    In other words, reading Nagel could provide clues as to why consciousness seems so intractable to our ‘default modes’ of reasoning.

    Maybe someday they’ll name a bias or malady after him, and he’ll be immortalized in the DSM…

    How’s the introspection paper coming, Gary? Have you had a chance to read Opacity of the Mind yet? I’m keen to compare notes!

  3. Nick

    Well, I haven’t read the book, but if it really contains only the arguments that Leiter and Weisberg claim that it does, then I hereby retract what I said in your earlier post. I may have to investigate this for myself, because I find it almost unbelievable that a philosopher of Nagel’s calibre would publish a book without any original or interesting argumentation whatsoever. Yet, if it really is this dull, then the book’s subtitle is as bad as you said it was. Provocative titles are OK if you make some recognizable attempt to follow through on them, but if L+W are right, we may be witnessing the sad case of a famous philosopher in mental decline being exploited by a publisher.

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