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Awaiting a New Darwin


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Initial post: Feb 2, 2013, 3:19:09 PM PST
IFeelFree says:
Interesting NY Times review of Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by H. Allen Orr, Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/feb/07/awaiting-new-darwin/?pagination=false

Thomas Nagel is University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University.

Nagel has a problem with reductive materialism (which I share), particularly its attempt to ground everything, including subjective experience, in matter:

"Nagel insists that the mind-body problem 'is not just a local problem' but 'invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history.' If what he calls 'materialist naturalism' or just 'materialism' can't explain consciousness, then it can't fully account for life since consciousness is a feature of life. And if it can't explain life, then it can't fully account for the chemical and physical universe since life is a feature of that universe. Subjective experience is not, to Nagel, some detail that materialist science can hand-wave away. It's a deal breaker. Nagel believes that any future science that grapples seriously with the mind-body problem will be one that is radically reconceived."

However, Nagel also thinks that neo-Darwianism must be reconcieved. (According to Orr, Neo-Darwinianism "maintains, or at least implies, that the origin and history of life can be explained by materialist means."):

"Once the first life arose on earth, the fate of the resulting evolutionary lineage was, neo-Darwinists argued, shaped by a combination of random mutation and natural selection. Biological types that survive or reproduce better than others will ultimately replace those others. While natural selection ensures that species constantly adapt to the changing environments around them, the process has no foresight: natural selection responds only to the present environment and evolution cannot, therefore, be aiming for any goal. This view, Nagel tells us, is 'almost certainly false.'"

Lest you suspect that Nagel is a creationist, he is not. He's not claiming any of the nonsense that creationists claim (life is 6,000 years old, it did not evolve, natural selection is wrong, etc.). Nagel believes that natural selection had a part in the evolution of life. In fact, he's an atheist. Rather, Nagel's view is that neo-Darwinism and materialism are radically incomplete. Nagel attacks the assumption that random mutations, along with natural selection, were sufficient to give rise to self-replicating life, and to the formation of complex organisms. Instead, Nagel proposes a kind of teleology -- a tendency of the universe to aim for certain goals as it unfolds through time:

"Nagel believes that (currently unknown) teleological laws of nature might mean that life and consciousness arise with greater probability than would result from the known laws of physics, chemistry, and biology."

The reviewer, a biologist, is critical of Nagel's views on teleology -- I have some reservations myself -- but he admits:

"I will also be the first to admit that we cannot rule out the formal possibility of teleology in nature. It could turn out that teleological laws affect how the universe unfolds through time. While I suspect some might regard such heterodoxy as a crime against science, Nagel is right that there's nothing intrinsically unscientific about teleology. If that's the way nature is, that's the way it is, and we scientists would need to get on with the business of characterizing these surprising laws."

When it comes to the matter of consciousness, the reviewer is less critical, and here I'm in agreement with Nagel. We have no idea how consciousness can be reduced to matter:

"Brains and neurons obviously have everything to do with consciousness but how such mere objects can give rise to the eerily different phenomenon of subjective experience seems utterly incomprehensible."

Posted on Feb 2, 2013, 5:55:35 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 2, 2013, 5:56:51 PM PST
If you want to understand how the universe works, don't ask a philosopher... ask a physicist.

The latter must be able to demonstrate that their claims are accurate via objective, rigorous testing, while the latter is under no such limitation.

In short, Thomas Nagel has no business saying anything about Darwin, or modern evolutionary theory.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 6:11:12 PM PST
IFeelFree says:
Argument from authority.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 6:14:55 PM PST
IFeelFree says:
Also, what do physicists know about modern evolutionary theory?

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 6:15:38 PM PST
"Argument from authority."

Just as I don't ask my butcher to perform brain surgery, (or my neurosurgeon to fix my garbage disposal) expertise matters. Does this somehow guarantee that someone with expertise is right, or should be assumed to be right?

No... the latter *would* be a case of the "Argument From Authority" fallacy.

If Thomas Nagel wants to talk about science, then he'll have to satisfy the same rigorous requirements as anyone else.

If he can show me published results supporting his hypotheses, *then* I'll take him seriously. Not before. Philosophers aren't physicists, and shouldn't pretend otherwise.

This is as annoying as the penchant some exhibit to think quantum mechanics justifies whatever "woo" they happen to believe in.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 6:17:25 PM PST
"Also, what do physicists know about modern evolutionary theory?"

I picked "physicists" as a handy shortcut for "scientists", as opposed to non-scientists such as philosophers.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 6:18:47 PM PST
IFeelFree says:
This isn't about science as much as it is about the philosophy of science, and in particular, scientific materialism and reductionism.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 6:22:23 PM PST
"This isn't about science as much as it is about the philosophy of science, and in particular, scientific materialism and reductionism."

Then he shouldn't have given the impression that he was saying something substantive about modern evolutionary theory.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 6:24:37 PM PST
IFeelFree says:
Also, this article that I'm referencing is by a biologist. Most of the passages I quote are from the biologist.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 6:30:20 PM PST
IFeelFree says:
MA: Then he shouldn't have given the impression that he was saying something substantive about modern evolutionary theory.

IFF: And you shouldn't give the impression that you actually read the article.

Philosophers question the philosophical foundation of science, among other things. Without such questioning, we might blindly forge ahead along a dead end. It was philosophical questioning that helped the transition from the religious worldview to the "Age of Reason" and "Age of Enlightenment" which produced the Scientific Revolution.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 7:36:51 PM PST
mark says:
Are you aware of the other thread on this forum discussing this same topic?

Well, it started out that way. After 1600+ posts, it sorta trailed off-topic.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 7:59:27 PM PST
Banished says:
"Thomas Nagel is University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University. "

A philosopher is discussing Darwin's theory regarding biological evolution and I should care about this why, exactly?

I see in Nagel's review both an argument from authority (he's a professor!) and an argument from ignorance ("We have no idea how....") Tell me again why his comments regarding Darwin or evolution theory or actual scientific study have any relevance beyond sheer speculation?

Not something I'm going to rush right out and buy.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 8:28:08 PM PST
[Deleted by Amazon on Jul 15, 2016, 3:40:18 PM PDT]

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 9:51:31 PM PST
S. Kessler says:
Nagel's book has already been discussed in the forum. My feeling is that he doesn't understand the theory of evolution very well.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 9:56:36 PM PST
S. Kessler says:
What questions are philosophers asking about the "philosophical foundation" of science? I don't understand why anyone should care about that, anyway. Science is a process of discovery, a discipline. It's the working through that process and the results it produces that determine the practices of good science versus poor science.

The earliest scientists of the enlightenment emerged from philosophy. But the practice of science has evolved, if I may use that word, far from its philosophic beginnings. I can't really see where philosophy has much to say about science anymore.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 10:02:25 PM PST
IFeelFree says:
IL: A philosopher is discussing Darwin's theory regarding biological evolution and I should care about this why, exactly?

IFF: I don't know why you should care about anything.

IL: I see in Nagel's review both an argument from authority (he's a professor!) and an argument from ignorance ("We have no idea how....")

IFF: It's not Nagel's review. It's a biologist's review of Nagel's book. The phrase, "We have no idea how..." is my words. That's why it's not in quotes.

IL: Tell me again why his comments regarding Darwin or evolution theory or actual scientific study have any relevance beyond sheer speculation?

IFF: This is about the philosophy of science. To that extent it is motivated by philosophical argument (not "speculation"). If this subject doesn't interest you, then I suppose it would have no relevance for you.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 10:25:17 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 2, 2013, 10:25:59 PM PST
IFeelFree says:
SK: What questions are philosophers asking about the "philosophical foundation" of science?

IFF: For examples:

* What is the distinction between science and non-science?
* What are the aims of science?
* How should one interpret the results of science?
* What gives a scientific theory explanatory power?
* What are the limits of reductionism?
* Are all fields of study ultimately amenable to scientific explanation?
* Is induction from empirical data justified? If so, how?
* To what extent do cognitive and social biases lead scientists to introduce their own interpretations into their description of their observations?
* What is the fundamental nature of space and time?
* What is the relationship between the abstract world of mathematics and the material universe?
* Can all phenomena -- including consciousness and the mind -- be reduced to material processes?

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 10:31:32 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 2, 2013, 10:32:56 PM PST
Re OP: Interesting, but I am in significant disagreement. "We have no idea how consciousness can be reduced to matter..." I certainly do: any entity which has sensory inputs and the ability to process these can come as close as you wish to any sort of consciousness that you care to define. My cat is conscious of itself and its surroundings; it knows its neighborhood, and where the food and water are; it scratches when it itches, and can find a warm lap when it wants one. The computer on which you are reading this is conscious of its keyboard and mouse -- and, if it has a camera and/or a microphone, can sense its surroundings. (Of course, the software to support these activities is still rudimentary.) The computer in Google's automated automobile can sense traffic, signals, signs, other vehicles, and the like; is this not a form of consciousness? The poppies in my front yard are conscious of daylight: they open up in the morning and close up after dark.

"This view, Nagel tells us, is 'almost certainly false.'" An assertion made on no good grounds.

Finally, ""Brains and neurons obviously have everything to do with consciousness but how such mere objects can give rise to the eerily different phenomenon of subjective experience seems utterly incomprehensible." A classic argument from ignorance. Why not simply admit that it happens, but we don't yet know all the gory details? We certainly know a LOT of them -- and with fMRI, we are learning a lot more.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 10:48:56 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 2, 2013, 10:56:05 PM PST
Re IFeelFree, 2-2 10:25 PM: This is a long list of interesting questions. I will propound some answers.
"* What is the distinction between science and non-science?" Popper's concept of refutabiity applies here [1, 2, 3].
"* What are the aims of science?" To learn how the world works, so that we can, by making predictions about the results of proposed actions, enjoy favorable results.
"* How should one interpret the results of science?" As the best available knowledge at any given time.
"* What gives a scientific theory explanatory power?" The fact that it can make correct predictions.
"* What are the limits of reductionism?" I don't have a good enough understanding of the term to comment on this one.
"* Are all fields of study ultimately amenable to scientific explanation?" To the extent that they are explainable at all, science is the only means of doing so [4].
"* Is induction from empirical data justified? If so, how?" Yes -- as long as it is understood that the process constitutes evidence but not proof [5].
"* To what extent do cognitive and social biases lead scientists to introduce their own interpretations into their description of their observations?" Not much -- and the purpose of peer reviewed publications is to make sure that it stays that way.
"* What is the fundamental nature of space and time?" Nobody knows.
"* What is the relationship between the abstract world of mathematics and the material universe?" Mathematics is a form of deductive logic. In the real world, we apply deductive logic to the rules which represent our understanding of the way that the world works in order to draw conclusions as to the results of specific situations.
"* Can all phenomena -- including consciousness and the mind -- be reduced to material processes?" Yes. Those are the only processes for which we are able to construct rules.

I will be most pleased to discuss any criticisms of these views.

1. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations.
2. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Routledge Classics).
3. "Search Customer Discussions" for "saunderst" in "Belief in the Christian god is absurd."
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 10:52:39 PM PST
Re Kessler, 2-2 9:56 PM: " I can't really see where philosophy has much to say about science anymore." I claim that philosophy has a great deal to say. The questions of what we can know, and how we can know that we know it, are crucial to a true understanding of the scientific method and its results. Please see the citations in my immediately preceding post for much more on this.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 10:54:15 PM PST
Ddms says:
Is this the same Thomas Nagel who was Pete Wilson's assistant when Wilson was mayor of San Diego?

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 11:04:59 PM PST
S. Kessler says:
I guess it seems to me that most of those questions have been answered already. What more is there to discuss, really?

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 11:05:14 PM PST
S. Kessler says:
No.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 11:28:14 PM PST
IFeelFree says:
RAS: The computer in Google's automated automobile can sense traffic, signals, signs, other vehicles, and the like; is this not a form of consciousness?

IFF: Defining consciousness in terms of observable behavior won't get you very far in uncovering its mystery.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013, 11:31:02 PM PST
IFeelFree says:
RAS: I will propound some answers.

IFF: I wasn't looking for answers. I wanted to give examples of the kinds of questions that philosophers ask, and that scientists often don't spend much time thinking about. It is good to think about why we are doing what we're doing, from time to time.
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