A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Darwinist Mob?

Hitting the Nagel on the head
The New Republic, a magazine evidently inspired by an H.G.Wells essay of the same name, has published an essay entitled "A Darwinist Mob Goes After a Serious Philosopher," by Leon Wieseltier.  Immediately (you guessed it) a Darwinist mob went after him in the comment section.    All the while blinking incredulously saying What Darwinist mob?  We don't see no Darwinist mob!  Nobody here but us chickens. 

What most of the commenklatura seemed to miss was that Wieseltier's essay did not concern itself with whether Darwinism per se is true or false - the answer is clearly 'yes' - but with the crypto-religious reaction of the Darwinistas to the whiff of heresy sniffed out from Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos.  Now Nagel is one of the top philosophers of consciousness in the modern world and he is adamantly opposed to religion.  It is not that he thinks the existence of God is wrong, but that he hates and fears the whole idea that God exists.  This would seem to put him on the side of the angels (in a manner of speaking) insofar as readers of TNR are concerned.

However, "in the bargain-basement atheism of our day, it is not enough that there be no God: there must be only matter."  Unlike so many of those who worship the intellect and do not use it - or even deny that the mind really exists! - Nagel does not see an easy solution to the problem of consciousness (etc.) in a materialistic world.  Others may wave their hands in the air and cry out "emergent properties!" or "sufficiently complex brains!" or "enough circuits!" and fervently believe that consciousness will be granted to some mass of flesh or silicon.  But Nagel does not believe in miracles.  He gives "thoughtful reasons to believe that the non-material dimensions of life—consciousness, reason, moral value, subjective experience—cannot be reduced to, or explained as having evolved tidily from, its material dimensions" and “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.”  (A lengthy review of the book by Ed Feser can be found in Nagel and his Critics, Parts I through VI)

Wieseltier hastened to add that “there is really no reason to assume that the only  alternative to an evolutionary explanation of everything is a religious one," but he was not fast enough to head off the mob.  He was entirely correct in this, put being correct is no defense when the peasants turn out with the pitchforks.   

This led Steven Pinker to tweet regarding Nagel: “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”  Evidently, great thinkers cease to be great once they think something Pinker finds objectionable.  (But when a keen intellect reaches an uncongenial position, is the default conclusion that he has suddenly turned stupid?  He may be wrong, but he is unlikely to be stupidly wrong.)  The TNR Commenklatura then demonstrated the ubiquity of shoddy reasoning.  Herewith, some of the comments, with TOF's gratuitous observations.
NOTE: Because one cannot comment on TNR without paying cash money, and so the original commentators will not know of these observations, I have arbitrarily altered their identities to generic commentaters.
1. Wieseltier: "it is entirely typical of the scientistic tyranny in American intellectual life that scientists have been invited to do the work of philosophers."  
waterman: Au contraire. For most of human history philosophers have usurped the work of scientists. ”

TOF's empirical observation is that until the 1830s there were no scientists, simplicitur.  The word did not even exist.  What there were was, as Newton proudly named himself, natural philosophers.  So there was Newton, the philosopher, usurping the work of... whom exactly?   

But waterman may not to too clear on the nature, content, and methods of philosophy.  

2. Wanderer: “these academics are indeed in a silly, meaningless tiff. But I can't think of a time when scientific tyranny in American life has ever been an issue, don't I wish. ”

Note that Wanderer has moved the goal posts from "scientistic tyranny in American intellectual life" to "scientific tyranny in American life."  There is a difference between science and scientism. 

The former is a useful tool for explicating the metrical properties of physical bodies while the latter is a metaphysical proposition that "the metrical properties of physical bodies" are all that there is insofar as our friend Reality™ is concerned.  Scientism by its nature cannot be scientifically proven, which is sort of awkward when you think on't.

That Wanderer wishes for a tyranny of any sort is startling, but this is the New Republic, after all, and there is a recurring wish to just make everyone else shut up.

For useful comments on scientism in modern Western culture, see Mary Midgley's The Myths We Live By

3. A little later euphoric comments on the oft-stated request that atheists ought to know what the arguments are before they dismiss them, saying "why is it OK for an Alabama fundamentalist to be a Christian, having never read the same [regarding evolution], but not fine for an atheist never having done so?" 

Pay close attention.  If one simply wants to be a Christian, one need not read a single word regarding evolution by natural selection.  One may simply sit there and mutter in one's beard.  Likewise, if one simply wants to be an atheist, no mental effort is required.  The problem comes when the Christian claims publicly to have demolished evolution or the atheist that he has demolished theism -- without knowing the first thing about that over which they perform their touchdown dance.  See here for a discussion.  I would have thought that rationalists would rather have liked to give reasons, not simply emotions, if only to demonstrate their own treasured rationality.

And why Alabama, specifically?  Is that a cultural marker intended to flag the fire hydrant of his territory? 

4. euphoric: "It's as if he's not even trying to keep up with science but, instead, expects scientists to regress to an argument that died 500 years ago. Very sad. Really. An educated, articulate spokesman invokes an argument that every creationist has used since 1859.”

Not to mention those who make arguments used since Kant and Voltaire.  Oh, wait...

Nagel is not trying to keep up with science for the excellent reason that he is not making a scientific argument.  It is a philosophical one.  It has aspects of physical science to it - what doesn't? - but it is a mistake to assume that those aspects are all there is to it.  It's like in projective geometry, mistaking the projection onto two dimensions of a three-dimensional object.

Which argument does he mean that "died 500 years ago"?  That would be ca. 1513.  Certainly euphoric does not specify an actual argument.  TOF knows of no creationist who has used pre-Renaissance arguments, and euphoric does not enlighten. 

Why should a philosophical argument need to keep up with science?  Does a scientific argument need to keep up with music?  Euphoric's underlying assumption is that everything is a scientific question -- which goes back to that intellectual tyranny of scientism so cavalierly dismissed previously. 

5. bucolic: "The fact is, any non-materialist assertions about natural processes has ALWAYS been wrong. It's one of the few times in history there's such a strong dichotomy. When we've found a cause for a natural process, it's ALWAYS been a natural cause. Without exception. 100% of the time. And the non-natural explanations have ALWAYS been wrong. 100% of the time. Yet we still keep going back to the well hoping to find something there. We never have."

It's nice to find bucolic in such good agreement with the medieval theologian-natural philosophers.  Of course, natural things have natural causes.  We only have to pause and wonder what bucolic means by "natural."  Is it to be "natural" or "material"?  Does bucolic know there is a difference? 

Alas, if the only tool you allow yourself is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.  If one uses methods that cannot in principle identify non-material factors, then they will not identify non-material factors, period.  Only the material aspects will be revealed.  But as we know a full explanation of a thing consists of four categories, so there will always be something of the matter that is in the explanation.  It just might not be the whole of the explanation.  It's like admitting only one or two dimensions while exploring a hypersphere.  Like a telescopist peering into pond water, you just might overlook something. 

6. bucolic once more: “ I don't know what a non natural explanation is. Neither, it seems, do those who say they exist...  they've never seen one and can't point to a single example in all of history.  Not one. ”

Duh?  How about a sickle?  The wood and metal by their own nature will not form themselves into such a contraption any more than twigs and leaves will form themselves into a bird's nest or a mass of vines will knit itself into a hammock for Tarzan.  They are artifacts, not natural bodies.  A natural explanation is one that derives from the nature of the explanandum itself.  A non-natural explanation is one that requires some action from outside the explanandum. Thus Adam may be strong by nature while Bill perfected his strength by artifice. 
Consider intention.  I am looking at the chair on the other side of the kitchen table.  How is this possible on a purely material basis?  The matter in question is a mad cascade of photons bouncing off tablecloth, chairs, walls, shilellagh, pad of paper, etc., etc.  into my eyeballs to strike the retina and cause optical nerve action.  Nothing in the matter itself privileges these photons bouncing off that chair over those photons bouncing off other stuff.  So how is it that I "look at" that chair? 
A similar example will do for "non-material" causes.  Objects fall due to gravity; but gravity itself is not a material body.  If it were, it would have mass, location, dimension, weight, and all those qualities that the Scientific Revolutionaries called "objective" (in the object).  This, btw, is why many materialists have rechristened themselves "physicalists."  They admit only material causes except for a few privileged non-material thingies. 

However, one suspects that bucolic is using "natural" as an equivolcal term, as if it corresponded with "material," "physical," et al.  These things are distinct, and muddying them together can obscure thought.  Bucolic might suggest that TOF, too, is natural and "looking at" will have an explanation in terms of his nature.  Perhaps so.  TOF is willing to admit that things have natures, which puts us well on the way to recognizing formal causation and hylemorphic dualism.  But this may not be what bucolic intends when he conflates "material" with "natural." 

7.  wittyphd: "That is the scientific method. The theories, though, must be shown to be true. This is to be contrasted with philosophy, where there is no mechanism like the scientific method for separating the workable from the unworkable. I am a scientist. I am not dogmatic. I go where the facts lead me. ”

Nothing dogmatic about that.  Of course, it's not the way scientists have worked.  The facts betrayed Galileo, Maxwell, Darwin, and many others, but they held true to their theories and were eventually, in one way or another, vindicated.  Facts only acquire meaning from being "assembled" with other facts.  (The Latin for "that which has been formed or shaped" is "fictio.")  It has been shown logically that natural science is underdetermined.  For any finite set of facts there are multiple theories by which they might be assembled into a coherent picture.  Hence, the same facts, looked at another way, may tell a different story.  So to go where the facts lead may depend on what metaphysic one has started with.  (Duhem told of two physicists reaching opposite conclusions on the same experimental data: one finding the hypothesis proven and the other disproven because one accepted the idea of pressure of Laplace and the other the idea of Lagrange.)
When Xenophanes saw marine fossils in the mountains of Greece, he concluded to an ancient world-covering flood because he knew of no other natural process than flooding to explain how marine life could wind up in the mountains.
Keeping the Stove hot.
The methods of science for separating useful theories apply to the metrical properties of physical bodies.  Other spheres of knowledge, like philosophy or mathematics, use logic or reason.  In certain circumstances, the conclusions of logic are far more rigorous than the conclusions of empirical experience.  The medievals rightly called these evidentia potissima and evidentia naturalis.  See an essay by the atheist David Stove for some observations on this score. 

8. wittyphd goes on to write: "Your question regarding the measurement of creativity and randomness is, in my view, simply unanswerable. There are no metrics by which we can measure these things." 

Which would punt them right off the scientific playing field.  And so the witty PHD has provided two sought-for examples of non-material objects. 

In the Pink(er)
9. Someone using the name Steve Pinker then writes extensively: "there is a powerful and well-funded lobby in this country that is trying to discredit the entire institution of science as a close-minded, ideological propaganda front which is determined to promote a secular, materialistic, anti-Judaeo-Christian liberalism. This is emboldens them to blow off the scientific consensus about man-made climate change, corrupt science education, suppress research on gun violence, and criminalize lifesaving medical research. For several years Nagel has been expressing casual opinions and overstating claims in ways that are guaranteed to credit and energize this lobby. While the substance of his claims have to be evaluated on their merits, it is completely legitimate to criticize the way he has expressed them. This is not about the culture war. This is about the future of the planet." 

Wow.  The future of the planet.  Yeah, so was eugenics.  And that too was scientificalistic. However, Pinker himself is only a psychologist.  We can see that in Baconian, goal-oriented science the goals have become overtly political and not scientific as such.  IOW, in Pinker's own account it is about the culture war, except that only those opposing his goals are culture warriors. Pinker himself (along with Dawkins and others) only wish to promote a secular, materialistic, anti-Judaeo-Christian liberalism.

Hence, his overtly political critique -- couched in protests that of course he is not doing so -- claims have to be evaluated on their merits, but....

Pinker cannot be unaware that no one in the academy or the Establishment takes creationism seriously.  They do take postmodernism seriously, and that describes science as a misogynistic, racist assault on the environment.  Which of the two is more likely to wriggle underneath and gnaw at the foundations of the whole scientific program?  The one that dearly wishes its religious beliefs could be elevated to the lofty status of Scientific Truth, or the one that says there is your truth and my truth but no truth simplicitur

The "argument" is that "Nagel should shut up because he gives aid and comfort to the enemy."  Not that there is a Darwinist mob assaulting Nagel, of course.  Pinker says there isn't.  This only looks like a Darwinist mob maligning Nagel for political reasons. 
The same aid and comfort argument was used against Eldrege and Gould when they hypothesized punctuated equilibrium, and even against Pinker himself when he tore into Noam Chomsky. 
10. Pinker again: "He confuses the observation that evolution produced human consciousness with....

Wo madoda gni hudelwe yi hubulu!  Stop the presses!  Pinker (or someone) has "observed" human consciousness being produced by an evolution!  Gadzooks!  TOF didn't think it possible to observe consciousness at all.  How much does consciousness weigh?  What are its dimensions?  Ditto for an evolution.  (Perhaps he is confused about "observation" and "cause" and what Pinker calls an observation is really a metaphysical assumption or drawing room comment.)

11. Pinker again: "[Nagel's] call to reintroduce teleology into science might as well be a call to introduce pixie dust into science–vacuous and mystical, not to mention unnecessary." 

Pinker does not understand what the telos is, as his equation with "pixie dust" illustrates.  Granted, final causes do not directly facilitate Man's conquest over Nature, but still....   Unnecessary? 

The telos is reflected in the basic lawfulness of nature.  Without finality there can be no efficient causes, and we are reduced to Hume's mere correlation.  Modern science cannot survive if it takes modern philosophy seriously!  (Which may be why modern scientists are barbarians when it comes to philosophy; they may sense this incoherence in post-Humean philosophy.(*)) 
(*) Feyerabend: The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Boltzmann, Mach and so on. But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth...  Feyerabend blamed the professionalization of philosophy for this; but we might blame the professionalization/compartmentalism of everything.
12.  roundabout: "Bravo, Mr. Pinker. I should say that your response leaves poor Leon Wieseltier thoroughly skewered and revealed as ignorant of the subjects, science and the history and philosophy of science, that he undertakes to discuss."

Not that there is a Darwinian lynch mob attacking Nagel or Wieseltier personally for their heresies.  Ever notice the propensity for individual name-calling on such matters? 

13. roundabout: "For the first time since I started participating, some eight or nine years ago, it is now possible to look forward to a day when all posters discuss the subject and refrain from personal attacks and invective directed at other posters." 

Not a hint of postmodern irony here. 

14. neccowafer:  "The piece is more a tantrum by a threatened and fragile ego than a useful defense of Nagel or a rejoinder to Pinker." 

See No. 12, above. 

15. mr.bassman: Nagel seems to be relying -- though I'll quickly admit I haven't read him -- 
Any bets on whether this limitation will prevent a rationalist from passing a judgment?  

15. mr.bassman: I don't doubt a materialist explanation of consciousness has a lot of work ahead of it, but it nevertheless offers a way toward real understanding that non-materialist approaches block with various kinds of mystification -- such as that "mind" is some sort of stuff that is fundamentally non-material but somehow interacts with matter and that matter can somehow affect." 

The magic organ that can use the
Mr.bassman's lack of doubt is what is known in the trade as an "act of faith."  Note the smuggled ace: that a "real" explanation is confined to material factors.  (So much for mathematics, I guess.)  Mr.bassman is also concerned that a view of life might make us seem "special," somehow different from all the other symbol-using, abstract thinkers on the planet.

The notion that "mind is some sort of stuff" is a modern aberration.  If it were "stuff" there would be a stuffical (material) explanation.  Mr.bassman should start with something easier than the mind-body "problem."  Perhaps the sphere-basketball problem - that "sphere" is some sort of stuff that is fundamentally non-material but somehow interacts with rubber and that rubber can somehow affect.  

+ + +

Plantinga season
A second, related essay was linked on the same site.  This was a review directly of Nagel's book.  "Why Darwinist Materialism is Wrong," by Alvin Plantinga   Plantinga is a theistic personalist philosopher and so this was like waving red meat before the "men of the New Republic." 

1.  rubberknife:  "The best response that I can think of is to dispose of teleology as a failed theory of the cause of the universe and replace it with a probabilistic theory as expoused by Multiverse Theorists." 

Rubberknife like Pinker fails to understand telos.  It is not a theory of "the" cause of the universe.  It is simply the observation (and faith) that the universe acts lawfully.  It doesn't cause the universe.  C'est drole.  Whether telos in turn then leads to a God as motion, efficient causation, and generation/corruption do is a separate question.  Funny how the fear of this conclusion leads people to deny telos, but not to deny efficient causes or motion.  And this despite the fact that lack of telos means that efficient causes would be incoherent!  It seems Mr. Rubberknife does not know why Bacon and Descartes discarded final causes, or that it was discarded and not disproven. 

"All things work to an end," as Aristotle said.  And indeed, heavy bodies fall to the point of minimal gravitational attraction, tiger cubs grow into tigers and not tiger lillies, chemical reactions proceed to completion, and lions chase gazelles for food.  Rubberknife is willing to accept a nebulous, unobservable abstraction like a Multiverse [sic], so long as it has a scientificalistic-sounding name. 

2. all-green: "History shows us that we have answers to many questions that were previously opaque; at root, that's what scientific investigation is about. There is every reason to expect that as time passes humanity will understand more. Computer scientists are edging ever closer to creating machines that exhibit something indistinguishable from consciousness."

Hallelujah, brothers!  Ironically, or perhaps not so, on the other discussion Wanderer recalled Steven Jay Gould, who "show[ed] us that in fact, the past does not predict the future."  Chances are, no one noticed the inconsistency.  The great past success of chemistry did not mean that one day in the future chemistry would change lead into gold.

Scientists cannot weigh or measure consciousness.  They have no conscious-o-meter to detect its existence.   It is not in principle objective.  (In fact, it is the ultimate in subjectivity.)  So how can anyone know if they are "edging ever closer" to it?  Unless that is mere subjective hope in the eschaton?

Why?  What did
you mean by
3. curiouser:  "soul" being a metaphysical construct to enable metaphysicians understand phenomena that had no scientific explanation is, of course, a matter for metaphysics. "mind" being the end result of chemical and physical interactions that are observable on an MRI is clearly a matter of empiricism and not just of logic

This is a common enough misunderstanding.  I ran into it at Boskone.  Soul is not a metaphysical construct intended to explain some scientificalistic "phenomena."  It is simply the English translation of "anima" which means "alive."  {Does X have a soul?}={Is X alive?}  Next question. 

Anima is no more a separate substance than "three-sided" is a separate thing from a triangle "to enable geometers understand phenomena that had no scientific explanation."

MRI measures blood flow in the brain, not thought.  The two may be correlated, but correlation is not causation and it is more likely that mental activity causes blood flow than vice-versa.  It cannot be a matter of mere matter since a recently dead petunia consists of all the same matter in the same arrangement as a live petunia.  Yet the former acts like a mere bag of chemicals while the latter acts like a petunia.  That is, the latter is in self-motion while the former is simply acted upon. 

4. kreiss:  the "can't explain THIS" crowd has been retreating, retreating, retreating for over a century and a half. It's the world view of a crayfish--when threatened, make a big show of your claws, splash around a bit, then withdraw in the face of overwhelming evidence to whatever rock hollow you can find temporary shelter in. But you have to be ready to do it all over again when the next discovery comes along and turns over your stone shelter. Hopefully, your critics will get distracted before they realize how far you've had to withdraw, and before they realize that the future holds nothing but future withdrawals. Truly, this God begins where actual knowledge ends.

Dumb Ox
Never heard of God-o'-gaps
The benefit of always boxing with  mugs is that you can win so easily.  The drawback is that you never learn to box properly.  Recall that the fifth of Thomas' proofs of God was precisely that there were no gaps in nature: everything always worked.

This is another example of the tyranny of scientism over Late Modern thought.  It does not seem to occur to kreiss that not everything is an effort to acquire knowledge of the natural world. 

5. kreiss:  All you have to do (in one of the many plausible scenarios) is assemble a film of fatty acid molecules (which happens by itself) and couple that to RNA or some other replicating molecule. Get that system going once, just once, around the abundant volcanic vent environments on the ocean floor, and the rest can happen from fairly simple Darwinian principles. ...  This kind of drivel should not survive editing or basic fact checking.

Yep. Get that system going just once.  Kreiss forgot the part where he has to say "then a miracle happens" or "then an emergent property emerges" or something.  Otherwise, in the end, he gets only a film of fatty acid molecules "coupled" to RNA.  This sort of drivel is not science. It is cargo cultism.

6. neocon2: "Is it too much to ask that the dualists stop representing contemporary physicalist views as though nothing had changed since Newton's time? Really, we do understand that nature is not a bunch of very tiny billiard balls bouncing around." 

Excellent.  How exactly do they understand it now?  (And TOF has noticed the switch from materialist to "physicalist," too.)  Of course, once you have abandoned atomism, what next?

7. josaphet: "Don't we see extensive evidence for natural selection in fossils, archeological findings, and, more recently, in analysis of historic DNA?" 

No, because natural selection cannot be seen in archeology, fossils, and DNA.  Natural selection is one of those immaterial, invisible thingies, like Adam Smith's Hand.  What we do see (except for archeology, which seems an odd partner here) is diversity within unity, as Thomas Aquinas would have expected [Contra gentiles] when he cited the multiplication of species over space and time as a positive good. Natural selection is one explanation.  There may be others. 

8. jack-o: "putting aside the "commonsense" intuition that a community of creatures with human-like faculties is certainly aided by those faculties, and the simple observation that humans have in fact dominated the planet, the underlying assumption seems to be that the development of the mind just as we know it must have been necessary to survival," 

The conclusion here does not follow from the premises and seems a post hoc fallacy.  An earlier commentator derided "common sense" intuitions, and here we see it trotted out.  Natural selection does not favor a trait simply because it would be useful, and as Gould pointed out a trait may survive even if it is not useful.  (He mistakenly called it a 'spandrel.')  More recently atheist Jerry Fodor pointed out that you can't really tell if any trait is not a spandrel.  (Fodor objects to natural selection because it is too teleological.  Go figure.  But the Darwinist mob that attacked pointed out that he was a stupid-head, and that settled it.)

We further note that many species have survived quite handily even without minds, so it cannot be "necessary" to survival.  And the only survival that counts in evolution is survival-to-reproduce.

9. jack-o: Don't know how something happened or why? "God did it." You might as well say, "blah blah blah." The concept has no explanatory power,

Big Al
Bedab!  That's what the medieval Christians said!  God did it?  God can make a cow out of a tree.  But has he ever done so?  Therefore, show some reason why a thing is so or cease to hold that it is.  Albertus Magnus put it this way, in De vegetabilibus et plantis:
“In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power; we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass.”  
The whole idea of natural causes for natural phenomena developed in Latin Christendom.  There were no dryads in the trees and the stars and planets were "just another created thing" and not gods and goddesses influential in human affairs.  Thomas Aquinas and others argued that matter possessed immanent powers to act directly on other matter.
"Species, also, that are new, if any such appear, existed beforehand in various active powers; so that animals, and perhaps even new species of animals, are produced by putrefaction by the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning." 

In other words, if any new species were to emerge, they would do so according to the powers of Nature.  What powers he did not know, but he had his faith that God had produced a universe that worked.  

It's much easier to say "Evolution did it!"  Not quite so easy to get anywhere beyond a just-so story of how one imagines evolution might have done so.  In the hard sciences you usually have to go further.  It's one reason Popper said that the theory was unfalsifiable.  No matter what one is faced with in an actual species, you can create a story how that trait came about.  Gould used to complain about these easy adaptationist "just so stories." 

10. cereal:  The reviewer and author point out their ignorance ... no one has suggested any reasonably plausible process whereby [life has come to be just by the workings of the laws of physics and chemistry]." Yes, they have.  There are well-known experiments that produce the building blocks of life (amino acids) using hypothesized early-earth conditions.

This is a bit like saying that because the precursors to bricks (i.e., clay, etc.) can be found in nature that houses build themselves.  In the end, you've only got amino acids; and perhaps a wrong guess about the early earth.  It's not inherently impossible that something we could call "living" may have arisen in some such way, but it is not the slam-dunk that some folks want to believe. 

11. Empirico: That this ridiculous pre-Enlightenment drivel appears here is almost beyond comprehension. What's next, an exegesis of the age-old question re the number of angels who can
dance on the head of a pin? Please, leave Know-Nothing commentary to Know-Nothing venues. There are enough of them out there. 

Where's that pinhead?
It's actually post-Enlightenment, since the errors that led to such garbles as the "mind-body problem" came out of the Enlightenment.  Only now are Late Moderns and Post Moderns finding the holes in the Enlightenment mythos.  Nagel is simply pointing out that the metaphysic of choice cannot do the heavy lifting being asked of it.  

The continued belief in the angels-pinhead myth is astonishing for a folk who brag about being "empirical."  Where is their empirical evidence that this was an age-old question, let alone one that was subject to exegesis?  Beside, if medieval students ever did write essays about the meanings of "place" and "there" and whether to be in a place meant to take up space, how is that worse than writing "what I did on my summer vacation"?  (Remember, logic was taught in "grammar" school.)  How many people can place their attention on the tip of my pen? 

Block that Article!
12. khan:  I wonder if it's not naive to ask for a science editor to block such articles.

Good thing they're not dogmatic or a mob.  (First reaction: shut them up.  cf. the longed-for tyranny up-page.) 

13. patience: "I am not familiar with the work of either the author of the book, nor of the review."

Which pretty much sums things up. 


  1. Great post.

    This reminds me of a quip someone made about coverage of the Conclave - it is as if the commentators were to say: The Chicago Bears need to draft a point guard to address their relief pitching issues.

    My daydream: that some local college will hold a Science versus Creationism debate, and I stand up during the question period, and ask for a show of hands for people from the Comp Lit, La Rasa, LGBT Studies, Sociology, Psychology - anyone who uses Critical Theory or Power Dynamic Analysis in their classrooms.

    Then turn to the Defenders of Science, and say: these folks teach - and hand out degrees in - fields whose basic assertion about reality is that Science is at best one of a number of equally valid world views, and at worst a tool used by patriarchal misogynistic elites to oppress the masses. Either passively or actively, they seek the destruction of science as you practice it.

    Meet your real enemies. Unlike creationists, they hold real power in your environment. Now, be brave enough to face them. Why are you not denouncing them?

    1. Mr. Moore, I would applaud you and cheer vociferously should I ever witness that.

  2. As for the scientismists, I wish there existed any one of them who could remember that at one time geocentrism was not only the popularly accepted scientific consensus but, by Ockham's razor, actually made *more* sense than heliocentrism (Galileo did not have a telescope of sufficient power to confirm the stellar parallax that heliocentric theory required).

    Increases in knowledge are as like as not to *dis*prove any given theory as confirm it, which is why humility and the willingness to admit the possibility of error or incompleteness are critical attributes of the real scientific method.

  3. This led Steven Pinker to tweet on “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”

    The really impressive irony is that the reasoning Nagel is using is the same kind of reasoning he has always used. Nagel has always argued that our current scientific approaches can't adequately handle various phenomena consciousness; it's what made his career, arguing that scientific inquiry would have to go in new and very different directions in order to give an adequate explanation of consciousness (particularly what he called its first-personal aspects). All he has done in recent times is to generalize this and argue that these same issues are symptomatic of much broader problems, which can be analyzed in closely analogous ways. So how can he be a once-great thinker if his use of the same kind of reasoning that made him well-known now makes him a shoddy reasoner?

    1. Yah, it's funny how people who always insisted that science deals only with objective facts and specifically excludes the subjective gets all upset when Nagel points out that consciousness is subjective and therefore, by the definition of the scientific revolution, is not covered by the methods of natural science.

  4. "It cannot be a matter of mere matter since a recently dead petunia consists of all the same matter in the same arrangement as a live petunia. Yet the former acts like a mere bag of chemicals while the latter acts like a petunia. That is, the latter is in self-motion while the former is simply acted upon."

    Well, I'm sure the material composition between a live and recently dead petunia is similar enough, but I don't know about the "same arrangement" part. One key aspect of living thing is homeostasis, which is when the parts maintain a dynamic balance (of nutrients, wastes, temperature, etc) for the sake of the whole. When this balance is lost, death may ensue. Static equilibrium is bad news for a living thing. I think that dynamic equilibrium counts as a different "arrangement" of matter than static equilibrium.

    1. Precisely. It's not the matter, but the form. Homeostasis is one of the four powers of the vegetative soul. It is, as it were, the "motion" or "action" of the matter; but it is not the matter itself.

  5. Only now are Late Moderns and Post Moderns finding the holes in the Enlightenment mythos.

    That reminds me: I'm currently reading Alasdair MacIntyre's book After Virtue for the first time. Great stuff.

    Re Steven Pinker:

    The "argument" is that "Nagel should shut up because he gives aid and comfort to the enemy."

    And this guy has the audacity to criticize Nagel's reasoning, when his objections amount to nothing more than saying, "Nagel's argument will impede our efforts to do Great Things(tm)!"

    Anyway, this whole post was just entertaining. Thank you.

  6. Oddly enough, I have always considered Mr. Pinker's book, "The Blank Slate" as particularly instrumental in driving me back to exploring Church teachings. The book is full of those crazy evolutionary psychology claims, which took an aspect of human nature and then speculated how it might have been pleasing to the gods of natural selection somehow, somewhere down the line of human descent; my younger self found them fascinating, but I have since wised to it. There is, however, a very interesting chapter in which he muses over how his discovery that man has a definite and imperfect (dare I say, fallen?) nature would effect politics. Because he places man's imperfections inwardly (specifically in the genes) he must reject any political theory that says that purely outward changes can perfect man, such as revolutionary Marxism. He then frets that this gives far too much comfort to rightward or, God forbid, traditionally religious notions of politics and anthropology. Pinker then hastily ended the chapter assuring his readers that a vague, less ambitious secular leftism can still be supported, and he has being trying with all his might to defend that narrow plot of ground ever since. I, however, did not share the man's prejudices, and immediately struck out to find out more about the ancient traditions that had somehow gotten the most basic truths of anthropology more right than the most learned men of the age. The rest, as they say, is history.

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  9. By the way, on a related note, I came across this article today, which is just a sad piece of writing. I'm not even Catholic and it had me screaming at my computer screen with how painfully wrong it is. This is the real kicker:

    It’s a “want my cake and eat it too” proposition that largely ignores the potency of Darwin’s dangerous idea as a God killer.

    A God-killer? A God-killer? Does this guy even know what he's talking about?

    Luckily io9 commenters are somewhat smarter than TNR commenters, and many called out how philosophically illiterate this piece was. So, that was encouraging.

  10. A fine reply. I am as antipathetic to religion as any of the New Atheists, but the comments to the New Republic diary piece made me almost annoyed enough to purchase a subscription simply to rebut them.

    Well, not really, but I am happy that the Olde Topologist found a way to reply, and to expose that particular mob of hyenas, including the Peevin' Stinker, for what they are.

  11. This led Steven Pinker to tweet on “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”

    This is Steven Pinker, memologist, mind you.

  12. Pinker, summarized: "I'm not saying that this is about winning the culture war, and that Nagel needs to keep his mouth shut lest he undermine our authority. It's just that THE WORLD IS GONNA END IF WE DON'T WIN THE CULTURE WAR, AND NAGEL NEEDS TO KEEP HIS MOUTH SHUT CAUSE HE'S UNDERMINING OUR AUTHORITY!"

    1. Steven Pinker et al as Eric Cartman? "Respect my authority!"

    2. Yes. This post has been a joy, a clarifying treasure in my thus far three day reading binge to exorcise the effects of reading an article in Politico, in which the comments were full of statements that Melissa Harris-Perry can't be a public intellectual because she doesn't have the breadth (delusion) that Jared Diamond does.

      Steve Pinker stinks on ice, and it's sadly obvious why they hate postmodernism--- it suggests that the whole world isn't responsible for washing his balls.

      Now I will plow into "The Myths We Live By" (thank you) and will be back to re-read for amusement, edification, and further reading of links provided.

      Reading this is the most fun I've had in ages. Thank you very, very much.


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