Sunday, December 16, 2012

Nagel 4: Reason & A Rational Kosmos

In Chapter 5 of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Thomas Nagel takes a decisive (though unacknowledged) step in the direction of Socratic rationalism. 
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all assumed that the brute fact of logos, the human capacity for rational thought and speech, implied a certain view of the Kosmos.  In the Phaedo, Socrates grounds the fundamental turn in his thought (how Socrates became Socratic) in the insight that if reason is to be reliable, this can only be because K is rational. 
I heard someone reading, as he said, from a book of Anaxagoras, that mind was the disposer and cause of all, and I was delighted at this notion, which appeared quite admirable, and I said to myself: If mind is the disposer, mind will dispose all for the best, and put each particular in the best place; and I argued that if any one desired to find out the cause of the generation or destruction or existence of anything, he must find out what state of being or doing or suffering was best for that thing, and therefore a man had only to consider the best for himself and others, and then he would also know the worse, since the same science comprehended both.
And I rejoiced to think that I had found in Anaxagoras a teacher of the causes of existence such as I desired, and I imagined that he would tell me first whether the earth is flat or round; and whichever was true, he would proceed to explain the cause and the necessity of this being so, and then he would teach me the nature of the best and show that this was best; and if he said that the earth was in the centre, he would further explain that this position was the best, and I should be satisfied with the explanation given, and not want any other sort of cause. And I thought that I would then go on and ask him about the sun and moon and stars, and that he would explain to me their comparative swiftness, and their returnings and various states, active and passive, and how all of them were for the best.
 For I could not imagine that when he spoke of mind as the disposer of them, he would give any other account of their being as they are, except that this was best; and I thought that when he had explained to me in detail the cause of each and the cause of all, he would go on to explain to me what was best for each and what was good for all.
Socrates supposed that, if K is rationally comprehensible, then K must involve the rationally good. 
Whether Nagel must move in that direction is not clear to me yet; though I see some signs of it.  He argues in Section 5 of Chapter 4 that the human capacity for rational thought is as big a problem as the big problem of consciousness.  Consciousness that divides the world into self and not-self is one thing.  A grasp of objective reality and objective value, independent of the subjective position, is quite another.  Here is how he lays out the implications.
If there is such a thing as reason, then:
1.       There are objective, mind-independent truths of different kinds;
2.      By starting from the way things initially appear to us, we can use reason collectively to achieve justified beliefs about some of those objective truths;
3.      Those believes in combination can directly influence what we do;
4.      These processes of discovery and motivation, while mental, are inseparable from physical processes in the organism. 

If reason is what it appears to be, then two big consequences about K follow: there are objectives truths about the parts and the whole of K and the history of K includes the appearance of creatures that can discover those truths. 
This was the basic assumption of classical philosophy and perhaps of all possible philosophy: that the human mind and the Kosmos operate according to the same (or mostly the same) basic principles.  Otherwise all rational investigation (including all scientific investigations) would be vain.  That means that mind belongs not only to human beings but to Being itself. 
What this commits us to is not clear.  Do we have to believe, as Socrates clearly does, that any explanation of astronomical phenomena must include the concept of what is best?  That would require a very big leap beyond the boundaries of modern scientific thought. 
It is not altogether out of the question.  The cosmological constants argument for the existence of an intelligent designer rests on the claim that K is fine-tuned for the existence of life on earth.  If gravity were just an infinitesimal bit weaker or stronger (along with a considerable number of other cosmological constants), there would be either no K at all or a K without the possibility of life. 
Apart from the theological implications of this argument, it is conceivable that they prove Socrates right.  Whether or how we conceive of G, it might be the case that we cannot explain K without the concept of what is best.  I’m not buying in just yet, but I think that the possibility is open. 
Without deploying teleology on a cosmic scale, it remains a fact that the universe is rational if indeed it exists as science imagines it.  The fact that such creatures as ourselves exist in it is central to understanding it, as Nagel argues. 

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