Text of a talk delivered at the seventh annual Generative Anthropology Summer Conference, held at UCLA from June 27 through June 30, 2013.
I had heard so much about how Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford UP, 2012), defied the generally received idea that “materialism” in the broadest sense was sufficient to explain all phenomena, including the human, that I was intrigued enough to decide, even before reading it, that it would serve as the subject of my talk at this year’s GASC. Here was a philosopher, thus in principle a “humanist,” apparently contesting the natural-scientific doxa that reigns throughout the thinking world. And indeed, I had read several reviews that praised Nagel for his daring and criticized the intolerance of his Darwinist detractors. Here are a couple of representative examples:
Evolution’s Revolution; How a leading atheist philosopher became an intellectual outcast for daring to question Darwinism.
Joseph Brean, National Post (f/k/a The Financial Post) (Canada), March 23, 2013
All he did was argue in a new book the evolutionary view of nature is “false,” and now grand forces have descended upon him. He does not want to talk about it.
The vicious reception handed Mind & Cosmos, which urges deep skepticism about evolution’s explanatory power, illustrates the perils of raising arguments against intellectual orthodoxy.
One critique said if there were a philosophical Vatican, Prof. Nagel’s work should be on the index of banned books for the comfort it will give creationists. Another headline proclaimed Prof. Nagel is “not crazy.”
The book has won a British booby prize for “Most Despised Science Book” and prompted sneering remarks the author is centuries behind the times, and somehow missed the Enlightenment.
“What has gotten into Thomas Nagel?” tweeted Steven Pinker, the Canadian cognitive scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mr. Pinker also called Mind & Cosmos “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”
Leon Wieseltier, New Republic 3/8/13
For the bargain-basement atheism of our day, it is not enough that there be no God: there must be only matter. Now Nagel’s new book fulfills his old warning. A mob is indeed forming, a mob of materialists, of free-thinking inquisitors. “In the present climate of a dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on speculative Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against religion,” Nagel calmly writes, “… I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.” This cannot be allowed!
Others (e.g., Jonah Goldberg) suggested that Nagel, despite his professed atheism, could be enlisted as an auxiliary in the intellectual rehabilitation of the God-concept, since although he doesn’t support theism, he includes it as a possibility, and more importantly, suggests strongly that material causality doesn’t have all the answers.
This seemed to be enough of an incentive for me to discuss the book in the context both of GA and of “putting the human back in the humanities”; what else was a philosopher doing in opposing a dogmatic scientific attitude about the human mind?
I’m not sure I would have made this choice had I known what the book contains. For I must admit that with all due respect both to Nagel’s philosophical knowledge and to the straightforward clarity of his writing, not to speak of his undoubted courage in confronting the intellectual establishment, I was struck by the extreme thinness of the thinking contained therein. The human world is presented throughout as consisting of a set of individual brains whose interactions, while taken for granted, are never at any point presented as having a causal effect on their components. This is, I imagine, a no doubt unconscious effect of the standard scientific “basic anthropological” (BA) worldview that has invaded philosophical “humanism” and turned it into a kind of “pod” (as in the old sci-fi classic) for the natural-scientific worldview.
Yet at the same time I couldn’t help feeling a certain perverse intellectual satisfaction. For if this is a prime contribution of “professional” philosophy to the current debate on the constitution of the cosmos, then there must be a place for a non-establishment “way of thinking” that takes a far more concrete approach to posing and answering the questions that Nagel finds so troubling. Nagel is an atheist philosopher, about as far from a mystic as could be imagined; nor is he an atheist “believer” like Richard Dawkins and his friends, who hate God the way Deleuze and Guattari hate Oedipus—that is, make Him not exist a little too much). Yet I think it will be obvious at least to us—but if to us, then why not to everyone?—that Nagel involuntarily mystifies the whole question of what it is that he finds inexplicable by cosmological-Darwinian material evolution. Thus he makes it impossible to find an answer to his dilemma without invoking something pretty close to, if not identical with, Intelligent Design.
Nagel is not satisfied by “theism,” which he defines sympathetically but in fact vacuously as the “explanation of everything” by God’s mind:
…the polar opposite of materialism [is] the position that mind, rather than physical law, provides the fundamental level of explanation of everything, including the explanation of the basic and universal physical laws themselves. This view is familiarly expressed as theism… It is the most straightforward way of reversing the materialist order of explanation, which explains mind as a consequence of physical law; instead, theism makes physical law a consequence of mind. (21)
[Theism] amounts to the hypothesis that the highest-order explanation of how things hang together is of a certain type, namely, intentional or purposive, without having anything more to say about how that intention operates except what is found in the results to be explained. (25)
If God is no more than an abstract intentionality invoked to explain the otherwise inexplicable, then we might as well adopt Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the place of the Bible. God is, at the very least, the subject bearer of the human deferring-representational intentionality that humanity discovered/invented at its origin. Whatever our position on whether God created man or man created God, Nagel’s formulation tells us nothing about the interaction of the two intentionalities.
Nagel’s preferred alternative to divine intentionality is teleology. I will return to this later, but for the moment I will just say that I cannot understand the notion of telos or goal in the absence of an intending subject. Can there be a goal without an intender? The comfort supplied by this concept would seem to depend on the authority of Aristotle, for whom, for example, heavy objects fall because their “end” is to be lower than lighter objects.
Here are Nagel’s own statements concerning his aims in this book. As you will see, they focus chiefly on the “mind-body” problem:
The aim of this book is to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms, but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history. (3)
Physico-chemical reductionism in biology is the orthodox view, and any resistance to it is regarded as not only scientifically but politically incorrect. But for a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works. The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes. (5)
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. (6)
The great advances in the physical and biological sciences were made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world. This has permitted a quantitative understanding of that world, expressed in timeless, mathematically formulated physical laws. But at some point it will be necessary to make a new start on a more comprehensive understanding that includes the mind. (8)
Mind, as a development of life, must be included as the most recent stage of this long cosmological history, and its appearance, I believe, casts its shadow back over the entire process and the constituents and principles on which the process depends. (8)
Those of you who have read my Chronicle 442 will already be familiar with one basic line of reasoning that I will develop here. Nagel speaks constantly of mental phenomena unique to humans, but never considers the specific importance of language. And given the context of contemporary philosophy, and the influence on it via “evolutionary psychology” of the Darwinian model that Nagel is suspicious of, it is not surprising that he considers language as no more than a secondary feature of human consciousness, helpful in permitting humans to communicate facts about reality, along with their subjective impressions, moral “values,” and so on, but never understood as the essential feature that distinguishes human consciousness from that of even the highest nonhuman animals.
For most creatures, however, . . . Their lives are lived in the world of appearances, and the idea of a more objective reality has no meaning. But once we come to recognize the distinction between appearance and reality, and the existence of objective factual or practical truth that goes beyond what perception, appetite, and emotion tell us, the ability of creatures like us to arrive at such truth, or even to think about it, requires explanation. An important aspect of this explanation will be that we have acquired language and the possibilities of interpersonal communication, justification, and criticism that language makes possible. But the explanation of our ability to acquire and use language in these ways presents problems of the same order, for language is one of the most important normatively governed faculties. To acquire a language is in part to acquire a system of concepts that enables us to understand reality. (73)
The capacity to generalize from experience and to allow those generalizations, or general expectations, to be confirmed or disconfirmed by subsequent experience is also adaptive. So is a basic disposition to maintain logical consistency in belief, by modifying beliefs when inconsistencies arise. A further, very important step would be the capacity to correct individual appearances not only by reference to other conflicting appearances of one’s own but also by reference to how things appear to other perceivers. That requires recognition of other minds, an ability with obvious adaptive potential. The reach of these capacities can be greatly extended and deliberately exercised with the help of language, which also permits knowledge to be collectively created, accumulated, and transmitted. With language we can hold in our minds and share with others alternative possibilities, and decide among them on the basis of their consistency or inconsistency with further observations. (76) (emphasis mine)
Indeed, as I attempted to point out in the above mentioned Chronicle, the very idea of separating a mind-body problem from the human possession of language is essentially fallacious. However bizarre it may sound at first, it is the possession of language that makes “subjectivity” mysterious. Creatures without language can possess all the “subjectivity” they need; the real mind-body mystery has nothing to do with the mysteries of consciousness and everything to do with the misunderstood non-mystery of language. It is misunderstood because the biological model, which Nagel follows, perhaps without realizing to what extent, seeks its data within individual organisms and cannot comprehend human systems of representation that do not exist “within” individuals. These systems are irreducibly communal or social entities whose formation is necessarily prior to any biological trace in the individuals who participate in their first manifestations. (It is absurd to assume that the first humans were somehow adapted to articulated speech—clearly it was speech that adapted them, who became us.) Human representation creates a new “world” separate from material reality that exists in a context of human interaction, not as a mysterious mental emanation that attends to the activity of the brain. Given that the point of rational thought is to reduce to a minimum the arbitrariness of our explanations, proposing such a major offense to Ockham’s razor as “teleology” should be attempted only in extremis. Which is where Nagel clearly thinks we are, but I think this is because he confuses the humanistic anthropological question of the origin of the human with the natural-science questions that alone evolutionary theory is competent to resolve.
Nagel proceeds chapter by chapter from consciousness to two further aspects of the mind that are in his view successively more difficult to understand in materialist terms: cognition, that is, reason and logic, and finally value, or what Kant called practical reason, the foundation of which is the judgment of good and evil.
I don’t think it is useful to enter here into the question of the objective status of the “cognitive” domain of logic and mathematics. This question is barely touched on in Nagel’s book, and it leads to what are to my mind fruitlessly academic discussions for and against the “Platonic” nature of the truths of these domains. Suffice it to say that the notion of “truth,” whether defined in the everyday logical way, where it applies to propositions, or in a more expansive way that takes the sacred into account (affirming “God exists” or “Jesus loves me” is not identical with affirming the propositional truth of these sentences), truth is dependent on signs and cannot be understood in their absence. Not for nothing does John call Jesus “the Word” / ho logos.
An indication that my argument is on the right track is Nagel’s choice of value—intuitively justified, although I wish he had theorized this more rigorously—as the ultimate category with which to demonstrate the inadequacy of the Darwinian explanation of the emergence of “consciousness.” Even cognition, which Nagel sees as a phenomenon difficult to explain as a mere product of chance evolution, can at least be considered, as it is by the evolutionary psychologists, as adaptive to reality. Here those familiar with GA will note that Nagel naively rationalizes or “cognitivizes” language (an error in which he has plenty of company), where Durkheim (who, however, never spoke of the problem in terms of language as such) always understood that the key category of representation, the sacred, whose function is to maintain the “solidarity” of the human community, is not in the first place a source of cognitive information but of a specifically social knowledge. GA, inspired by Girard’s intuition that human mimesis is the source of our greatest danger, takes a step beyond Durkheim and understands the origin of language as apotropaic, averting violence and the breakdown of order, before it becomes cognitive, which is by no means to deny that language will come to provide a means to transmit data about the world as well as its sacred valuations. Nagel, as philosophy has always done, takes language as an auxiliary to communication and never as a problem—the problem—whose solution will provide the key to our explanation of “consciousness” and its products. But this underestimation of language (and therefore of the mystery that resides in its cognitive apparatus) leads him to focus in what we might call a paralinguistic mode on what is indeed the originary function of language, that is, precisely, the imposition of value.
We cannot help but note Nagel’s surprisingly crude formulations of the relationship between the visceral reactions of pain and pleasure and moral valuation,
…the real badness of pain and the ability to recognize that badness are completely superfluous in a Darwinian explanation of our aversion to pain. The aversion to pain enhances fitness solely in virtue of the fact that it leads us to avoid the injury associated with pain, not in virtue of the fact that pain is really bad. So far as natural selection is concerned, pain could perfectly well be in itself good, and pleasure in itself bad, or (more likely) both of them might be in themselves valueless—though we are naturally blind to the fact. (108-09)
I remain convinced that pain is really bad, and not just something we hate, and that pleasure is really good, and not just something we like. That is just how they glaringly seem to me, however hard I try to imagine the contrary, and I suspect the same is true of most people. (110)
In the realist interpretation, pleasure and pain have a double nature. In virtue of the attraction and aversion that is essential to them, they play a vital role in survival and fitness, and their association with specific biological functions and malfunctions can be explained by natural selection. But for beings like ourselves, capable of practical reason, they are also objects of reflective consciousness, beginning with the judgment that pleasure and pain are good and bad in themselves. (111)
Can anyone really believe that these statements even begin to describe what we mean by “good” and “bad”? This would seem to me to be one more example of the insidious effect of misconceived science on humanistic thought. The very origin of philosophy among the pre-Socratics, as I pointed out in A New Way of Thinking, was as an attempt to come to terms with the beginnings of a desacralized, pluralistic society in the Mediterranean basin, where self-conscious criteria for the organization of human interaction—political organization—beyond those of the archaic empires began to be sought. All the well-known pre-Socratic discussions about the cosmos and its composition, of whatever (I think, overblown) interest they may be to historians of the physical sciences, take their primary inspiration from the organization of human society, and I think it clear that the modest degree of natural curiosity they evince is subordinate to their search in “nature” for a model to deal with the really troublesome problem of the human order of things. The culmination of pre-Socratic thought in Heraclitus and Parmenides, in discussions of change and violence on one hand and the search for logical certitude on the other in contrast to the “way of opinion,” have their roots in political, legal, and ultimately ethical questions; language is now obliged to resolve, in a broader and more complex context of human interaction, problems that in simpler times had been resolved using ritualistic rules of thumb and the exercise of the reigning will.
It is surely no accident that the high point of Platonic philosophy is the Republic. In his use of the term good, as I pointed out many years ago in “Plato and The Birth of Conceptual Thought,” (Anthropoetics 2, 2 [January 1997]) Plato is at great pains to deny the good’s “indexicality,” so that one cannot claim a good for any individual that differs from the good of all. What justifies the Socratic elenchos to determine the meanings of words is the fundamentally ethical nature of language in general, with the notion of “the good” as its founding Idea. Nagel appears to think that the good is in the first place only indexical, identical with physical or emotional pleasure, and that its conversion into an ethical concept or “value” (the process of which he never discusses) results from something like the universal sense of “pity” that Rousseau finds in all humans—thus he sees causing pain to another as bad in itself: “If something I do will cause another creature to suffer, that counts against doing it” (77). In contrast, Plato/Socrates’ point against Callicles in the Gorgias or Thrasymachus in the Republic is precisely that their pleasure, being “indexical,” is not equivalent to the Good.
If instead of understanding value in this crude manner, we see it as fundamentally a social category, a perspective that I think is intuitively obvious at least to those of us outside the philosophy department, then we need neither teleology nor intentionality to explain its existence—which nonetheless, and here I fully agree with Nagel, cannot be explained by the material modes of causality that find their culmination in Darwin. The way to explain “value” is not as the result of reflecting on individual pleasure and pain but as a concept born at the origin of the human in the collective context that gives rise to language—which for all of us Girardians is a way of avoiding the “pain” of collective self-destruction. Anyone familiar with GA’s originary hypothesis, or with Girard’s simpler version of human origin, will have no trouble distinguishing the event of this origin both from Darwinian causal evolution and from the manifestation of an imminent teleological drive.
The judgment of good or bad relates of course to pleasure and pain, but not in the simple correlation described by Nagel. The central sacred object is a danger to the group precisely because of its power as a source of “pleasure.” If the members of the group sought their individual “good” in the former, animalistic way, chaos would ensue, because the moment in which language becomes necessary can only occur if the previous pecking-order animal hierarchy had broken down under the pressure of our ancestors’ growing mimetic capacity.
We must on the contrary conclude that the origin of the idea of the Good must be precisely the opposite of the naturalistic intuition of Nagel: it originates to oppose individual pleasure for the sake of the common good, which demands the (ultimate) collective appropriation of the desired object, its “equal” distribution. There would be no need for a word like good if all it did was give (linguistically, collectively) a positive value to what already possesses such a value for the individual.
Indeed, it is not made clear in Nagel’s formulations why we need to speak of good and evil at all (not to speak of the possibility he raises that from a Darwinian standpoint, pain might as well be good and pleasure bad) when painful and pleasurable would seem to suffice. Nagel treats the emergence of value as a mystery he never even attempts to explain. Speaking of “teleology” in this context is tautological, since the real question is, if values have no Darwinian/biological use, what then is their function, other than demonstrating our moral superiority to other creatures?
But I think the significance of Nagel’s insistence on value transcends these superficial and seemingly materialistic formulations; it reflects an intuition that what is specific about value, about cognition, and even, I would insist, of “consciousness” to the extent it poses a problem for materialist explanations of reality, is its origin in the human community mediated by systems of representation, the most notable of which is language. Nagel’s intuition is poorly expressed and understood because it conflicts with the direction of modern analytic philosophy and its scientific models. But not, I hasten to add, with GA—and this is the key to the stubborn persistence of our little group, ignored by the wider “intellectual” world, that continues to point out the nakedness of the contemporary emperors of thought. Our explanation may not be perfect, but we have an explanation, one compatible with and at the same time independent of the parsimonious explanations of natural science.
I think Nagel makes “value” the capstone of his argument because he doesn’t really believe that good is pleasure and bad is pain. For I agree that even if one could (although I believe one can’t, for the reasons I have just given) find an evolutionary source for “cognition,” the knowledge and transmission of information and the possibility of reasoning about it, and the signs that facilitate it, one can certainly not derive “good” and “evil” from genetic mutation. No doubt evolutionary psychologists can find Darwinian explanations for religion as well as morality, but I think it is to Nagel’s credit that he is fed up with just-so stories. Yet he seems helpless to do more than express a very limited intuition of the specifically human phenomenon of moral “value,” which GA derives from what I have called the “moral model” instituted on the originary scene.
“Values” are indeed the primary example of a human phenomenon whose causality Darwinian evolution cannot describe. The just-so stories of evolutionary psychology are logical enough as “teleological” principles; their weakness is as models of causality. The difference between the Darwinian world and that of human evolution is, in a word, the sign, and its corollary, the digital as opposed to the analog; non-empirical, binary criteria of judgment, the simplest version of which is Durkheim’s binary opposition between the sacred (or meaningful) and the profane (or meaningless). Biological evolution may well generate elaborate digital-like operations, such as the coding of genetic information, which gives the original advantage in “fitness” by creating fitness itself: survivability through reproduction. But such coding is mechanical; it does not reflect on itself; it does not like human values enforce “laws” not given in “nature.” To call something good or evil requires a judgment independent of worldly action, and it is not necessary to belabor the point that this very difference implies that circumstances cannot but occur in a world of sufficient complexity in which inflicting pain on sentient creatures (in punishment or disciplinary training, not to speak of the “pain” of avoiding excess self-indulgence), and certainly, restricting pleasure, will be judged a good, not simply as part of a utilitarian pain-pleasure calculus, but for collective moral reasons more primary than those of individual satisfaction.
Because he fails to understand this, Nagel makes in spades the category error he had begun to make when discussing consciousness and then cognition and logic. Because the judgment of good and evil cannot be understood to emerge from some genetic mutation, he feels the need (unconsciously emulating the religious thinkers of old) to extend the category of value, which is nothing but moral judgment, to the whole of the universe, to suggest as an alternative to the clearly inadequate Darwinian explanation a teleological orientation of the entire cosmos in which moral values are somehow present in germ from the outset rather than emerging in the proto-human world at a certain stage of complexity. This strong teleological explanation goes well beyond the banal tautology that the mere possibility of moral values must have existed from the beginning, since anything that comes into being must have been possible.
What is the actual history of value in the world, so far as we are aware of it? Nothing in this domain can be regarded as obvious, but in the broadest sense, it seems to coincide with the history of life. First, with the appearance of life even in its earliest forms, there come into existence entities that have a good, and for which things can go well or badly. Even a bacterium has a good in this sense, in virtue of its proper functioning, whereas a rock does not. Eventually in the course of evolutionary history there appear conscious beings, whose experiential lives can go well or badly in ways that are familiar to us. Later some descendants of those beings, capable of reflection and self-consciousness, come to recognize what happens to them as good or bad, and to recognize reasons for pursuing or avoiding those things. They learn to think about how these reasons combine to determine what they should do. And finally they develop the collective capacity to think about reasons they may have that do not depend only on what is good or bad for themselves. (118)
By contrast, once we recognize that an explanation of the appearance and development of life must at the same time be an explanation of the appearance and development of value, a teleological explanation comes to seem more eligible. This would mean that what explains the appearance of life is in part the fact that life is a necessary condition of the instantiation of value, and ultimately of its recognition. (121)
We recognize that evolution has given rise to multiple organisms that have a good, so that things can go well or badly for them, and that in some of those organisms there has appeared the additional capacity to aim consciously at their own good, and ultimately at what is good in itself. From a realist perspective this cannot be merely an accidental side effect of natural selection, and a teleological explanation satisfies this condition. (122)
I join with Nagel’s critics in finding this reasoning unhelpful: it explains nothing about either cognition or moral judgment. In contrast, such explanations, as those familiar with GA will know, are provided by the originary hypothesis. The mystery of the human is its communal origin, its creation of representation as a means to avoid mimetic violence through the sharing of common moral understanding.
The mystery once clarified, I think we can then defend the parsimony of standard scientific explanation without having to burden our ontology by making values and other qualia (categories of “mind” rather than “brain”) somehow present or anticipated in the universe from the beginning. Nor do I think that religion needs the help of this kind of argumentation to regain respectability in intellectual circles.
No doubt the origin of life remains something of a mystery; but Nagel makes clear that it is not this mystery that led to his book. It is the human mystery, which is not that of “consciousness” or “cognition,” or even of “value,” but representation, language; and once a solution is proposed for the origin of this human trait all the other mysteries are accounted for as well—explained at least within the context of the originary hypothesis, which cannot of course ever be fully “demonstrated.”
I think I have shown in what sense the origin of “value” is also the origin of language, and that “value” in the moral sense comes into existence to oppose the simple pain-pleasure calculus as the expression of a communal good. As I have observed, this discovery is the very foundation of metaphysics, going beyond the archaism of the pre-Socratics to the doctrine of Ideas, which by positing the fundamental equivalence between the elements of language and those of the universe, serves as the foundation for all subsequent philosophy. I, who have never formally studied philosophy, feel uncomfortable to have to give this lesson to an eminent philosopher who surely knows the works of Plato far better than I.
My reaction to this discomfort is double. On the one hand, I find deplorable that in its current state the great philosophical tradition has so lost touch with its historical, communal roots, including the celebrated and fundamental philosophical arguments that oppose the universal concept of the Good to individual pleasure. But on the other hand, I take pride in pointing out in all modesty that GA has “solved” this problem from the beginning, and that had Nagel been acquainted with its arguments he would not find himself tempted to entertain the hugely unparsimonious notion that the big bang must contain not only matter-energy but the emanation of some kind of teleology, reminiscent of Henri Bergson’s proto-Darwinian élan vital.
Ideas are only as powerful as their ability to move minds. These may not be the products of a teleology inherent in the universe, but they are not simple products of evolution either. They are part of the human community, and like anyone who writes, I must put my faith in the ultimate common sense of this community.
Although the arguments of GA remain virtually invisible to the philosophical and intellectual world, I see no reason to alter my conviction that our humanistic way of thinking gives a better understanding of the human than the doxa that reigns here and elsewhere in the so-called world of thought. Within the limits of my abilities I have done my best over going on four decades to develop and propagate these ideas. If you find them at all persuasive, all I can hope for is that you will go forth and do the same.