3p Home Page The Threepenny Review
Fall 2012

Two Perspectives on
Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos

Image Map - Text Links at Page Bottom

Prefatory Note: Our usual policy at The Threepenny Review is to assign one book to one author. But in this case two of our longtime writers—P. N. Furbank, an essayist, critic, and biographer who lives in London, and Louis B. Jones, a novelist and essayist who lives in the Sierra foothills—both wanted to review the same book. So we let them. We think the results are instructive: not oppositional, not mutually contradictory, but very different approaches to the same subject. We are also pleased that neither Jones nor Furbank is a professional philosopher. (After all, philosophical theories, if they bear on reality, should be meaningful to the rest of us.) So here they are—first Jones, then Furbank—commenting on Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, out in the fall of 2012 in both America and England from Oxford University Press.



My stranded trailer in the woods looks onto a clearing where wild sweet pea vies with starthistle, fescue with blue-eye grass and miner’s lettuce, all competing as they’ve done, possibly, since the Sierra first crumbled into soil and started inviting plants to colonize. It is a patch of ground, then, that existed through the geologic ages in the peculiar twilight oblivion of being unwitnessed—until the first Maidu people came along, probably climbing up from the creek below. Before the Maidu, the witnesses of the place were the animals. And now these days I’m here, to substantiate this little clearing’s existence. It’s almost a weary old joke in philosophy, but still a surefire, hard-to-retire joke—that I’m necessary to this clearing’s existence. My mind. The joke, however, is making a serious, small comeback in this century. What’s more, the entire antique notion of teleology seems to be making a comeback, and not in the disreputable fringes—rather, right in the middle, in physics and biology and cosmology and academic philosophy. Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos, is a straightforward effort to invite back teleology.

The idea of a “teleological cause”—a notion of Aristotle’s, and much beloved in the Middle Ages—runs like this:

There are two kinds of answer to the question, Why did it rain yesterday? It’s one kind of answer to say, “It rained because water vapor condensed in the atmosphere.” That, in Aristotle’s language, names the efficient cause. But to answer, “It rained because the grass needs water to survive” is to offer a wholly other kind of reason. The latter is the teleological cause, or final cause. In teleological thinking, the final result is an event’s cause. The goal is the cause.

Efficient causes are likely to refer backwards in time: the rain precipitated because moist air rose to colder altitudes, which happened because the Pacific sent a wind up the Sierra, which happened after ocean water had evaporated, etc. In the other direction, teleological causes like to explore the future: the rain fell in order to make the grass grow, to provide grazing for summer cattle, so that the cattle may fatten and be butchered, to provide meat for the poet who lives in the glade, so that one day she may write her great meditative poem, so that, finally, Allah may be glorified.

Why do humans have binocular vision and centrally placed noses? So that (among many other excellent reasons) the letters spelling HOMO DEI may appear graphically in the arrangement of human facial features, and we may be reminded of our Maker. For two thousand years after Aristotle, teleology was the preferred explanation for events. Hard to imagine these days. These days, since the Enlightenment, teleology has been pretty much extirpated as unscientific. If there were any traces of teleological thinking that remained, in some hermit’s cave, or in some quaint parish churchyard, the trumpet blast of Darwin chased it out. How the Elephant Got His Nose used to be a wondrous tale, involving the Argument from Design. These days the proboscidea, like everybody else, have a clear explanation.

Philosophy has always been prompted most sharply by physics. This has been the case since philosophy’s birth among the Milesian Greeks, when defining “what Being is” brought up the first ideas about the basic constituents of matter. In recent years, physicists have been suggesting that, in a certain queer sense, mind is the cause of matter. Such a mysticism is still only a fume coming off quantum mechanics’ Copenhagen interpretation and many-worlds interpretation, and off the so-called anthropic theories of Big Bang cosmology. It’s a variety of thinking that is troubling, especially to many physicists. Maybe fans of the paranormal and the occult like to talk in such ways, saying mind causes matter, but for a serious empiricist it sounds like psychic hocus-pocus; it sounds like the road to solipsism, or nirvana; it sounds a little like Holy Writ.

Thomas Nagel, Professor of Law and Philosophy at NYU, now in his seventies, has made it part of his life’s work to keep us honest about a few small crucial distinctions, in particular to fight off reductionism: to fight off the oversimplifying tendency in scientific empiricism that would reduce our concept of mind to neurochemical phenomena alone. In mainstream science of mind, presently, reductionism rules. Everybody aims to discover “neural correlates of consciousness.” Everyone is watching MRI images in which brain-parts light up while subjects’ thoughts play. The ruling belief is that, when we have a “thought,” no part of it is an immaterial thing like a puffy dialogue-balloon over our heads; the thought has a physical, neural basis. The orthodox view is that the thought has a strictly physical basis. This is called the identity theory, that a “thought” and its nervous-system flicker are the same event. The identity theory, in the words of neuroscientist John Kihlstrom at Berkeley, explains the mind as nothing fancier than “sparks and drips at the synapses.” Thomas Nagel has been insisting that we must remain patiently agnostic in the face of this reductionist identification of mental with physical. In a famous essay from 1974, called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” he defended the sovereignty of subjective consciousness. Each of us conscious beings, when we experience a simple thing like yellowness or a handclasp or anger, enjoys a personal, non-fungible subjectivity, whose mystery will never be accessible to the measurers of sparks and drips.

Nagel’s very nice analogy, in the book Mind and Cosmos, is to a pocket calculator. If I tap the keys marked 5, +, 3, and =, the little gray window displays an 8. This small miracle is explainable in purely physical terms, as the tender pulse of electrons traveling through microchip gates. Such is the reductionist view of the brain. What Nagel wishes to point to is the much larger miracle, that the figure-eight pattern of pixels in the screen has a meaning! That astonishment—meaning—is not accessible to reductionist analysis. Only a sovereign consciousness sees that.

Furthermore—and this is an additional leap of cognition that Nagel finds almost numinous—the little equation pertains to a logical, cognizable universe. How is it that this universe happens to fit, like a glove, our cogitations and surmises? There are still undiscovered theorems out there, theorems beyond the Pythagorean, or beyond the calculus, which we haven’t yet dreamed of, waiting to be rendered intelligible by the grey jelly in our skulls. So mind and cosmos are a pair of strangely mutual astonishments. And in addressing them, Nagel believes that the teleological step is necessary: “The intelligibility of the universe is no accident,” he says. His book suggests that physical matter itself—the proton, the quark, the first stardust—has always been imbued with a purpose, which it seeks to fulfill. This though he’s an atheist.

All this makes me think of vitalism, a philosophy I remember from grade-school as a disgraced fallacy of past centuries. (French tadpoles were born spontaneously out of cold mud, or something like that—out of an elan vital.) Nagel doesn’t intend to be an obfuscator or a mystic. He is a dyed-in-the-wool atheist and takes pains to make that clear. He is very much on the side of science. But he feels that science has oversimplified two important mechanisms of nature: mind and evolution. The mind must be more than sparks and drips; and consciousness must have evolved by more than random accident.


Mind and Cosmos lays out a far-reaching, general campaign. He wants to defend not only consciousness against reductionism, as in previous work, but also to defend the higher mental structures of cognition and ethics. Those two mental faculties, too, somehow inhered originally in matter. He is dubious of the Darwinian account of evolution on two accounts: he doesn’t think three billion years has provided enough sheer time for mere random mutation to have lifted us to the height of complexity that characterizes life today; and, more importantly, he sees unbridgeable gaps in the Darwinian story, especially at the point where the machine of self-replicating carbon-based matter is supposed to have flared up into full-blown consciousness. The Darwinians’ theory, at that point, lacks any sort of “pineal gland” of the kind Descartes resorted to, to be an interface between spiritual stuff and material stuff. Nagel thinks one must go beyond the Darwinian story to explain the appearance of “conscious organisms, and not merely behaviorally complex organisms.”

This is not the most persuasive part of the book. He puts little faith in the notion that consciousness and cognition might have offered some survival advantage; or for that matter, that ethics, as they evolved, might have had survival value. He rather undervalues the notion that an animal with insight stands a better chance of surviving to reproduce, or that a species which has evolved a social or moral contract among its confreres, similarly, might get luckier. I wish he could come out and spend a day or two at my house to watch the small society that, this spring, is developing among a few new hens that peck in the hedgerows alongside two basking housecats and a dog. The cats are less than a year old and had never met a chicken, and they are psychopathic, calm, cold-hearted hunters. The dog is a herder and an alarmist. A number of protocols have evolved among the three species—the cats’ repression of their (obviously intoxicating) urge to hunt and harry, the cats’ and the other chickens’ obedience to the protective displays of the dominant Barred Plymouth Rock hen, as well as, too, the cats’ affectionate coexistence with the hens, whom they seem to admire somewhat—as all species together dally in the shade, edenically, but keeping an eye on one another. The silly chickens even follow the cats around sometimes, obeying an instinct to be herded. And the dog: his constabulary supervision of the whole scene; his interventions, when a cat forgets his manners and starts stalking a hen; his occasional spurt of playful pursuit. Meanwhile, all afternoon, overhead in the tree branches, perch species of birds who are less domesticated, less socialized according to Homo sapiens’ semiotic and cultural standards. The young male robins and finches and grosbeaks are singing for various well-known practical, seasonal reasons right now, and each is developing his own repertoire of calls and songs, while at the same time learning to imitate and reproduce, roughly, a few of the songs of his neighbor. This is an observation of field ethologists, who up and down the Sierra sit for days in their blinds with their clipboards: at the borders of their territories, wild male songbirds share songs. Ornithologists suppose it could be a form of sociability, conveying sociability’s mixed message of threat and appeal. The upshot is—and here’s the point—those males who learn more of their neighbors’ songs live longer and have more offspring.

That distinction Nagel seems to make so easily—between the “conscious” organism and the “merely behaviorally complex” organism—has been on my mind for days; it’s fascinating; I have to confess I can’t quite iron it neatly flat. He underestimates the feel-good familiarity of culture, and how our consciousness takes shape in the semiotic basket woven around us by our mothers’ voices, among echoing voices of great-great-great-grandparents. He doesn’t allow for how consciousness is an essentially gregarious phenomenon, not an individual’s achievement but a congregant and linguistic phenomenon, whether it’s kindled in a single infant in the family or convivially in the whole race over five million years, within the vast ancient murmurous library of grammatical tongues. Unable to be a gradualist, he insists that consciousness had to appear in a sudden leap, because consciousness feels like such a whole different category of being. And morality, too, according to Nagel, pre-existed us as a kind of Platonic form, into which we are gradually growing, as we discover morality the way we discovered the Pythagorean theorem. No moral relativist, Nagel believes that certain deeds would be wrong whether humans thought so or not, and this structure of morality must have existed independently before conscious minds started musing over it. At the original point where life (self-replicating DNA) is supposed to have arisen from chemicals, he is unsatisfied with neo-Darwinists’ sleight of hand in explaining the Promethean leap, up to cognition and ethics. Something distinctly vitalist happened there, for Nagel. But he can’t specify what. He just knows he distrusts the incompleteness of science’s explanation.


The book’s wider questions—its awe-inspiring questions—turn outward to address the uncanny cognizability of the universe around us. By what vast coincidence does an intelligible logos originate both in our minds and in the cosmos? “Mind,” says Nagel, “is doubly related to the natural order. Nature is such as to give rise to conscious beings with minds; and it is such as to be comprehensible to such beings.” His contention is that these happy correspondences are “fundamental features of the universe, not byproducts of contingent developments.” He calls it a natural teleology—or teleology without intention, as a way of stipulating that God has not designed any of this. “Mind and everything that goes with it is inherent in the universe,” he says. “The intelligibility of the world… is itself part of the explanation of why things are as they are.”

That Mind is inherent in the original universe sounds like an outlier’s view, but he isn’t alone. Not only Thomas Nagel but a considerable small meme of contemporary philosophers and scientists are resorting to teleology, partly as a way of keeping a mythical God out of what seems a weirdly well-designed creation, or just an evidently unnecessary, unwished-for, gratuitous creation. Cosmologists lately (especially since the newest radio-telescopy’s confirmations of the Big Bang’s specific characteristics) have been going back to the idea that the reason this universe exists is that we are here observing it. This is the “anthropic” cosmology, a word proposed in the Fifties by astrophysicist Brandon Carter. The most common version of anthropic cosmology takes the following form:

Among the potential billions of ill-mixed universes that may have been launched over infinite time, most happened to lack the ingredients for the evolution of life. Those universes were duds. This one wasn’t a dud because it has us here to observe it.

Such a formula loads Mind into the front-end of the equation. Nagel, in an aside, dismisses all anthropic cosmology as “a cop-out.” Carter and John Wheeler and a number of other anthropic theorists have opened themselves to accusations of Berkeleyanism: their theories seem to suggest that that Bishop Berkeley’s esse est percipi (“to exist” is “to be perceived”) applies not only at the microscopic level of the quantum (where the observer is necessary to the subatomic event) but also in the expanses of the “quantum event” that was the Big Bang. Here on our planet in the lukewarm middle of the old Big Bang, we observers are indispensable dramatis personae, basking as we do in radiation that continues to reach us at light-speed from that original, ancient pop.


The old sublime campfire question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?,” will always excite the shiver that is the beginning of all philosophizing, because the universe’s default condition should be nothingness. Nothingness is the easier ontological alternative. Infinite eternal nothingness would have the advantage of simplicity, obeying the Least-Work law of physics. It seems clear, however, that things do exist, and the new teleologists’ non-theistic suggestion is: the universe, by existing rather than not existing, has obeyed an a priori, ineluctable requirement of being sufficient, being somehow more fit than a non-existent universe would be, or more entirely inevitable particularly in being cognizable. (Sounds a little like St. Anselm’s old ontological proof of God’s existence, but reheated, as a warrant for anything’s existence.)

This picture of a self-purposed universe blossoming in empty time-space makes me think of a Klein bottle, one of those fanciful geometric objects like a Möbius strip illustrating a topological paradox. A Klein bottle’s neck stretches out and swings around and gropes behind to reenter itself, pass through its own belly, and open its mouth onto its own outer wall: so its outside surface is continuous with its inside surface, paradoxically. As a picture, it seems to embody the philosophers’ teleological universe, whose final goal, Mind, is an end that always abided in its beginning. Like a Klein bottle, the floating, self-decreeing universe’s head is thrust up its posterior, an image to mimic the satiric caricature of all of us deep thinkers, us philosophes, who make so much of Mind. Mind, I have to admit, does seem to me numinous. Maybe it’s a weak-headedness of my own, but frankly, I’ve always been attracted to solipsism as an ontological doctrine, the utterly subjective, almost impolite position that I, alone in my forest clearing, am like Vishnu creator and preserver of the Universe. Solipsism has a terrific logical self-consistency, but it’s a very hard topic to discuss freely. (Just try broaching the topic with somebody. See what happens.)

Nagel may be a patient, steadfast atheist and empiricist, but nevertheless, he wants to avert the “mindless universe” that will result if science is to succeed in its goal of reducing everything to pure physicality. Physical reductionism has had such a complete triumph in the sciences, he admits—and is he being coy or is he just thinking out loud, forlornly?—that his notion of teleology “in the present intellectual climate…is unlikely to be taken seriously.” The problem is, having poked a hole in the Darwinist, physicalist tradition, he doesn’t propose any specific idea to fill in where he’s damaged.

I think he’s simply doing the old-fashioned Socratic work of gadfly, probing for gaps in what science thinks it knows. Gaps might open the way toward a fuller Weltbild and a new paradigm. “These teleological speculations,” he says, “are offered merely as possibilities, without positive conviction. What I am convinced of is the negative claim,” that is, the claim that our universe isn’t just a mindless machine that evolved via random chance. In Nagel’s diagram (or rather, gesture), there are three salient attributes of existence which are too wonderful to be explained away mechanistically—consciousness, cognition, and eternal moral law—and they must have been part of physical matter from the beginning. A renowned philosopher, relaxed in his authority and unashamed to display some decent puzzlement, he makes equivocal confessions like “I am not confident that this Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention makes sense, but I do not at the moment see why it doesn’t.” Well, good luck. To my own sensibilities, the whole project seems like a glance in the right direction. Nagel, in the company of a number of scientists and rationalist philosophers who can’t be comforted by religion, hopes to discover in these teleological gropings a door—a needle’s eye—that might lead to a universe where, absent the supernatural policing of a god, nevertheless sweet reason comes naturally, and so does justice.

Louis B. Jones


*


The “mind,” potent word! I stand by my opinion, argued in the pages of the Spring 2010 issue of Threepenny, that to a considerable degree the celebrated “mind-body problem” is a dispute about the English language. There is no exact equivalent for the term “mind” in French or German (the French esprit is usually better translated as “intelligence,” or alternatively as “spirit”), and we are told by the French brain-scientist J.-P. Changeux that French thinkers are nervous of the “mind-body” question, when phrased in this way. Gilbert Ryle, in The Concept of Mind (1949), insisted that the mind is not a place or receptacle, or a tool, or—really—a thing at all, but he did not quite succeed in laying the Cartesian “ghost in the machine.”

By contrast, the cherished “mind-body” topic makes its appearance in the very first sentence of the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book; and his thesis is that “materialism” is simply not equipped to take the full measure of “mind.” To suggest that so hugely significant a phenomenon as life and the mind can be explained, as Darwinians claim, by mere accident—the exploitation of random genetic mutations by natural selection—strikes him as an absurdity. Of course, we have heard this cavil often before, but what Nagel goes on to say is calculated to make us sit up in wonderment. He declares that, though he is personally an atheist, we may have to accept that there is “meaning” and “purpose” in the universe. Teleology may, he suggests, exist without consciousness.

All this, perhaps perversely, has set my thoughts running upon that ill-reputed and incorrigible fellow, the “materialist.” The truth is, we shall not arrive at an understanding of materialism by studying its theories of matter. It is not a scientific doctrine, but rather a polemical and philosophical—you might almost say humanistic—affair, essentially negative in character. It regards it as essential to deny (what religion would claim and was once a great obstacle to scientific progress) that the world is inhabited by invisible and immaterial entities: God, angels, spirits, and souls. Samuel Johnson’s five-word definition of a materialist in his Dictionary, “A denier of spiritual substances,” hits it off very accurately. There lay materialism’s first task. Later, in the nineteenth century, it attacked a different question, the problem of personal identity, one which involved the relationship of the “mind” to the brain.

The article on “Materialism” in the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought defines it as “The theory that everything that really exists is material in nature, by which is meant at least that it occupies some volume of space at any time and, usually, that it continues in existence for some period of time and is either accessible to perception by sight and touch, or is analogous in its causal properties to what is accessible.” The long article in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy speaks in broadly similar terms. But it mentions that Frege and Popper differentiate between three kinds of things, or “realms.” The first consists of material things; the second of psychological things, like thoughts, feelings, pains, and desires, “including the substantive minds that have these, if there are any”; and the third contains abstract things, like numbers, properties, classes, truths (and perhaps falsehoods), and values. In modern times, it tells us, philosophers have tended to direct their fire primarily against believers in the second realm.

This is nicely put, but there seems all the same to be something seriously wrong with it—indeed, with both those definitions. For they lead to a quite unnecessary confusion, not about the word “matter” but about the word “exists.” Presumably the objection to belief in Frege and Popper’s “second realm,” the psychological one, has been on the grounds that thoughts, feelings, pains, and desires are not material. Nor, of course, are they (though the living beings who have them are thoroughly material). Nevertheless thoughts, feelings, pains, and desires are the main substance and the most familiar feature of human life, and it would seem absurd, it would be positively weird, to deny that they are real. Many things are indisputably real, of which it does not make sense to say that they exist. David Hume goes so far as to state as an axiom that an object may exist and yet be nowhere, and says—rightly, I would think—that “the greatest part of beings do and must exist after this manner.” Language quietly acknowledges the situation and prescribes that, instead of saying that such intangible objects “exist,” we should speak of having thoughts and experiencing or suffering pains and desires. But at all events they are the distinctive features of the human. What would help, one cannot help feeling—and it might clear matters up wonderfully—is if one were to turn things round and reduce the Frege/Popper doctrine to a mere definition. It would then run, “When saying that something ‘exists,’ we shall mean that it has dimensions, occupies some volume of space, etc.” This would be a reminder of the vast and obvious difference between saying that something exists and saying that it is real.

It is a mistake, though a common one, to call Lucretius, the author of the great atheistic poem De Rerum Natura, a materialist, for the term had not been invented in his day. We could call him a “corporealist,” but so was everyone in his time. Neither he nor most people in his day had any notion of the incorporeal. It would bewilder St. Augustine even some centuries later when his mentor St. Ambrose said that, when God or the soul were being thought of, “our thoughts should dwell on no corporeal reality whatsoever.” It would be many years before Augustine could make sense of this.

Materialism came into the world with Descartes, or rather with the profound hostility to Descartes and his “dualism” on the part of the great Thomas Hobbes. (One will better understand the powerful attraction of Cartesian dualism if one phrases it, not as the “mind-body problem,” but as the “soul-body problem”—for Descartes represented his soul as being his ego, his personal identity, and supposed this identity might even survive the death of the body.) Human beings, out of fear, so Hobbes argued—and this would become a basic materialist doctrine—imagine the world to be peopled by “invisible agents,” supposing them to be “real, and external Substances, not realising that they are merely creatures of the Fancy, like dreams and looking-glass reflections.”

In France there had for long been a freethinking tradition, and numerous clandestine writings had been in circulation in manuscript, some the work of hard-up garret-dwellers, others coming from the pen of highly respectable members of the royal academies. It was the consensus among them that only the material exists, the “soul” being a superfluous hypothesis. Matter had existed from all eternity and was, or might be, self-moving, and it had a capacity for feeling and thought. In 1747 there was actually published, though in Holland, a work by the French physician Julien de la Mettrie entitled L’Homme machine (Man a machine), mockingly putting down man’s pretension to superiority over animals. La Mettrie was or had been an admirer of Descartes, whose greatness it had been, he said, to realize that animals were automata—his only error being not to have seen that the same was true of humans. The book, to La Mettrie’s joy, created a considerable scandal, making it necessary for him to take refuge in Germany.

Whether one goes along with the materialists or not, it has to be admitted that they and their slogans make a colorful impression. Jean de Cabanis (1757–1808) theorized that the brain was an organ specifically designed to produce thought in the same way as the stomach and intestines produced digestion. Jakob Moleschott, a Dutch-Italian botanist and physiologist, coined a number of much-quoted dicta: “The brain secretes thoughts as the liver does bile”; “No thought without phosphorous”; and so on. Louis Büchner’s Force and Matter (1855) won him great fame (only eclipsed by the appearance of Darwin’s The Origin of Species four years later), though his book lost him his university post and prompted its reviewer in the Frankfurter Katholische Kirchenblatt to say that the proper place for authors of books of this kind was prison. Materialists, on occasion, were of great service to the progress of science. They were so in the “vitalist” controversy of the early nineteenth century, throwing their weight with great enthusiasm against the vitalists, who held that life was governed by different biochemical laws from organic matter, being sustained by a “vital force” of unknown, perhaps supernatural origin. Vitalism was finally demolished by the great Claude Bernard (1813–78), and it was he (though he did not publicly describe himself as a materialist) who saw the importance of settling the status of the brain, as “unquestionably the organ of intelligence, as the heart is of the circulation and the larynx is of the voice.” Though on the other hand, he wrote, as everyone would agree, “nothing whatever is known at present about the nature of the relation of the brain to thought.” Materialism continues to center itself upon the brain, sometimes showing a (grammatically puzzling) tendency to say that thoughts and feelings are the brain. Francis Crick, of double helix fame, writes provokingly in his The Astonishing Hypothesis of

the astonishing hypothesis that you, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are, in fact, no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

I have given this hasty little sketch of materialism to bring out the contrast with Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos. Nagel maintains that we are called on to rethink the concept of “mind” in the widest possible terms, ones involving the whole universe. “The mind-body problem…invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history,” he says. If consciousness and perception and reason have a natural explanation, the possibilities must have been inherent in the universe long before there was life, “indeed have existed from the beginnings of time.”

Well, no doubt possibilities are, or begin life by being, endless. But what we are looking for from Nagel is probabilities, and he cannot be said to have provided any. For, with all respect to him (and he can be an original and cogent writer), his argument in regard to the “universe” and the “cosmos” strikes one as fatally unspecific, indeed almost impalpable. His language about the universe is bizarre. He speaks (as we saw) of “our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history”; but, apart from the very latest millennium or two, the universe has no history. The dinosaurs, the drifting of the continents, and the Big Bang are not links in a historical chain; they are, and very properly, called prehistoric. And Nagel’s phrase “a long historical period in the distant past” sins in much the same manner. A place must be found, he says, for consciousness, perception, beliefs, etc. in “any complete conception of the universe”—but who has that? At one point he recklessly asserts that “we are composed of the same elements as the rest of the universe.” It is something one wouldn’t want to bet on.

As for the “mind,” which Nagel holds could not have been brought into being merely by Darwinian natural selection, it has played a magnificent part in English poetry: in Marvell, Keats, Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and so on. But it is not at home in philosophy. The “mind-body problem,” a sort of Indian rope-trick, is a toy which has been teasing and entertaining philosophers for too long.

P. N. Furbank



Louis B. Jones is the author of Radiance, Particles and Luck, Ordinary Money, and other novels. Radiance's dark twin, Innocence, will be out in January from Counterpoint.

P. N. Furbank has been spending the last year or two writing a book about cinema and film theory. His other books include biographies of Denis Diderot and E. M. Forster.
lines

Home PageCurrent IssuePast IssuesReading RoomGallery
BooksLinksAdvertisingSubmissionsSubscribeContact UsDonate

The Threepenny Review