Thomas Nagel:
"Mind and Cosmos" (Oxford Univ Press, 2012)

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If i understood correctly his thinking, Thomas Nagel (of "What is it like to be a bat?" fame) is having doubts about the reductive materialism that the sciences have employed so far to understand the world. That particular approach has worked wonders to explain the natural phenomena from which our physical survival depends, but has failed to explain the most important phenomenon that we are aware of: consciousness. If one combines cosmology and Darwin's theory of evolution, one can explain how matter evolved into living beings and how living beings evolved into our bodies, but nowhere does this story show how consciousness came to be. Since they were originally designed to explain material phenomena, it is no surprise that the sciences that we have today cannot explain (non-material) consciousness. Hence Nagel wonders whether science (or whatever comes after science) needs to look for different foundations. More importantly he comes close to the conclusion that many of us have reached, and which, ultimately, is still relying on reductive materialism: matter must have properties that, under some circumstances, yield consciousness. He even thinks that values (culminating with the human being's moral values) must be fundamental properties of matter, otherwise it would be difficult to explain how they arise in the case of some configurations of matter (such as our brain). In a language that at times sounds almost mystical (Nagel is a hardcore atheist) the book laments the fact that we don't even have a good rational explanation for why animals would evolve consciousness at all: there is no evidence that conscious beings like humans are better at surviving than, say, an identical species with no awareness of what they are doing.

Nagel's most powerful insight is perhaps the fact that the universe is understandable to the human mind. One mystery is how the matter of my brain yields my conscious "I", but a no less puzzling mystery is how does this "I" manage to understand what exists around me. Of course, we don't know if we can truly sense the whole universe (in fact, we do know that we cannot sense many frequencies and so we cannot hear and see most of what goes on in the world), but there is still a lot that we can feel. Nagel concludes that my mind must somehow be both cause and effect of the rest of the universe: "Mind and everything that goes with it is inherent in the universe." The world has to be intelligible by conscious beings in order to exist. And, despite Nagel's explicit rejection of it, this comes very close to becoming idealism (reality is created by mind) or at least to a sort of anthropic principle (the reason that this universe exists is that conscious beings exist to observe it). Nothing new here: when humans cannot explain something, they have always resorted to teleology (like religions).

The weakest part of the book is the section in which Nagel attacks Darwinism as a theory of the evolution of life. Nagel, like creationists and other hardcore critics, finds it implausible that life would start and evolve according to Darwinian principles of variation and selection alone. Like creationists and other critics, Nagel has not done his due diligence because he seems unaware of the various theories on the origin of life advanced over the last 20 years or so (most of them assume that RNA, not DNA, was the original material, because RNA can act as both a catalyzer and a replicator, thus providing the functions of both proteins and DNA in one). It may not be easy to prove any of these theories, since the facts happened millions of years ago, but it is unfair to say that there is no plausible theory.

See also Nagel's "The View from Nowhere" (Oxford Univ Press, 1986)

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