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Thomas Nagel: Thoughts are Real

July 21, 2013

Richard Brody in The New Yorker:

Brain antomy, 19th century artworkThe philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book, “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False,” restores the primal force of a great old philosophical word, “metaphysics.” He starts with a boldly discerning look at that strange creature, mankind, and comes to some remarkable speculations about who we are and what our place is in the universe. Incidentally (and seemingly unintentionally) he illuminates, along the way, some significant aspects of the cinema, and of art overall.

The book deals with science—specifically, Darwinian ideas regarding evolution and natural selection—and it’s filled with the quasi-scientific language and argumentation that characterizes much of Anglo-American analytical philosophy. This is unfortunate, because the ideas that Nagel unfolds ought to be discussed by non-specialists with an interest in the arts, politics, and—quite literally, in this context—the humanities.

Where the book has been discussed, it has stirred up controversy, largely of an implicitly political nature. Jennifer Schuessler reported in the Times, on the praise that it has elicited from creationists. Proponents of evolution have, in effect, responded to it with a concerted “Et tu, Nagel?”: having spent their careers fending off attacks on evolution from right-wing religious creationists, they now find themselves having to defend the idea on, so to speak, their left, hyper-rational flank. But as H. Allen Orr rightly notes in the New York Review of Books, there’s nothing in “Mind and Cosmos” that supports or sympathizes with the religious point of view. Rather, Nagel is seeking to improve science, even to expand it, not to repudiate it.

Physics is the question of what matter is. Metaphysics is the question of what exists. People of a rational, scientific bent tend to think that the two are coextensive—that everything is physical. Many who think differently are inspired by religion to posit the existence of God and souls; Nagel affirms that he’s an atheist, but he also asserts that there’s an entirely different realm of non-physical stuff that exists—namely, mental stuff. [More]

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