Friday, April 05, 2013

Thomas Nagel, Darwin, God, And Other Boring Shit

Dr. Dawg has a post up where he discusses Thomas Nagel's new book, Mind And Cosmos, and the alleged persecution of Nagel over his "heretical" views re Science, Darwin, God, and other such weighty matters. Don't be ashamed if you haven't heard of the man or his book.  In fact in this post I will argue that you can feel secure in your ignorance.  The guy's a philosopher and he's engaged in a  philosophical debate; these things typically don't amount to much.

And as I write this I admit that I have not read Mr. Nagel's book, and do not intend to.

In any case, Dawg says that Nagel's book has triggered "shrieks of outrage" from the "scientific community".  Well, to start with I think that's an overstatement.  Nagel has written a work of anglo-american-analytic philosophy; other anglo-american-analytic philosophers have given it a pan.  I suspect that 99.99999% of the scientists on this planet will not read Nagel's book, and wouldn't give a flyer even if they knew what was in it.

But I think the more important point here is that Dawg and most others who've written  about Nagel seem surprised by the amount of venom that's getting slung about; they seem to think its unusual for academe, or perhaps for philosophy in particular.  It's not.

I remember, for example, a weekend conference I attended back in the early 1980's.    On day one Keith Donnellan  got into it with David Lewis.  They were arguing trans-world identity conditions--how can we tell if Nixon is Nixon in some possible world that is not our own.  Donnellan had drawn a little stick figure of Nixon on the black-board behind his lectern.  He'd even drawn a little hat on Nixon to highlight some point or another, and circled the hat with a quick flourish.  Lewis got up, walked over the the blackboard...and erased Nixon's hat!  Nervous laughter rippled through the crowd!

But that wasn't even the highlight of the weekend.   Day two featured a debate between a philosopher of biology and another kind of philosopher of biology.  The two men were arguing over whether it was best to employ the notion of species or the notion of population.  Lewis, who was clearly feeling his oats after the previous day's encounter, had already declared their whole discussion to be without philosophical content which got everyone quite excited.  But then some fellow in the audience got up and began aggressively questioning the two guys on stage.  He, it turned out, was some kind of neo-catastrophist.  A real heretic! Our two biology guys started firing back and, well, lets just say that hair almost got pulled that day, specs almost got busted!

So its important to realize that the stir over Nagel's book is just that.  A stir.  These things happen all the time.  Think mixed  martial arts for nerds.

As to the actual arguments in the book, well whatever.  They seem to be the same old dualist vs. physicalist stuff that philosophers have been bumping heads over for centuries, to no avail.  Any concept of God that's likely to emerge won't get you  close to Jesus riding in on a dinosaur 6,000 years ago, so it is politically without consequence.


MikeAdamson said...

I haven't read Nagel's new book either but I do know that,in terms of the existence of God,he's at best agnostic if not athiestic. I suspect that this may represent a reminder that simply because somebody or somebodies praise a work and use it to justify their claims doesn't mean that they understand the work in question.

Just saying.

thwap said...

It sounded like:

"I know that the outside world that science measures is real, but what about the intensity of the thoughts and feelings inside my head???"

To which I would answer:

"The outside world that science measures is actually a thought inside your head. Just like all your other thoughts and feelings."

So I wasn't sure if the dude was inventing a problem.