Well, Wolff’s complaint is:
Saturday, September 14, 2013
Man is Wolff to man
As a follow-up to my series of posts on the critics of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, let’s take a look at philosopher Robert Paul Wolff’s recent remarks about the book. Wolff is not nasty, as some of the critics have been -- Nagel is Wolff’s “old friend and one-time student” -- but he is nevertheless as unfair to Nagel as some of them have been.
Most of his post is not about Nagel at all, but consists of an anecdote about Edward O. Wilson and some remarks about the wealth of knowledge Wolff has found in the biology books he’s read. The point is to illustrate how very meticulous good scientists can be, and how much they have discovered about the biological realm. All well and good. But so what? What does that have to do with Nagel?
Well, Wolff’s complaint is:
Tom Nagel undertakes in his slender 128 page book to show that "the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false," and yet in those pages, there is not a single chapter, a single paragraph, a single sentence, indeed not a single word about all of this extraordinary science. On the face of it, that just cannot be right.
End quote. This is, of course, a common complaint about the book. Indeed, some of Nagel’s critics seem to think that in order to justify dismissing Mind and Cosmos, it suffices merely to note that it doesn’t read like a Scientific American article or pop science book -- without, you know, engaging Nagel’s actual arguments at all. As Wolff would say, on the face of it, that just cannot be right.
It seems right to these critics because “the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature” concerns biology, biology is a science, and therefore (so these critics conclude) any criticism of that conception had better be hip deep in the scientific details. But this is fallacious, because while “the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature” concerns biology, it also -- as the word “materialist” should make blindingly obvious -- concerns metaphysics. And it is that aspect of the conception, rather than the biological aspect, that is Nagel’s main target in the book. No one who’s actually read the book and is trying to be fair to Nagel could leave that fact out, and it isn’t a small point. It’s the whole point, as I’ve shown in my series of posts on Nagel’s book and its critics.
The expression “materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature” rather obviously covers several distinct theses, including the following (the list is not intended to be exhaustive):
1. Species arise from earlier species via evolution.
2. Evolutionary change is gradual.
3. All species share common ancestors.
4. The key mechanisms of evolution are natural selection operating on variations resulting from mutation, gene flow, and sexual recombination.
5. The first living things arose from inorganic precursors via purely material processes.
6. Matter and material processes are devoid of any irreducibly qualitative, intentional, or teleological features.
7. Evolution interpreted in a materialist way suffices to account for every aspect of the biological realm, including consciousness, intentionality, and value.
As anyone who has read the book knows, Nagel’s main concern is with theses (6) and (7). He does not deny (1) - (3), nor even necessarily (4) and (5), though he would certainly qualify the latter in light of one of the alternative, non-materialist conceptions of matter he entertains. But it is definitely the “materialist” rather than the “Neo-Darwinian” part of the expression “materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature “ that most exercises Nagel. It is the nature of the basic material substrate of the evolutionary process, rather than the process itself, that he thinks is the problem with trying to account for consciousness, intentionality, and value in “materialist Neo-Darwinian” terms.
That is why he devotes attention to ideas like panpsychism, neutral monism, and Aristotelian teleology. And that is why he does not, and need not, devote attention to biological details of the sort cited by Wolff. Nagel’s critique goes far deeper than anything evolutionary biologists have much to say about. For again, it is, for the most part anyway, materialist metaphysics rather than evolutionary biology that he is concerned with. And I have explained what his arguments actually are, and how certain critics persistently misinterpret them, in the series of posts linked to above. In particular, many critics ignore the fact that Nagel’s arguments against materialism in Mind and Cosmos are essentially just brief summaries of arguments he has presented in more detail in earlier works like The Last Word and “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” And they falsely suppose that the arguments are concerned with weighing probabilities, when in fact they are mostly concerned with what is possible in principle.
Hence it is no good for Wolff to complain that Nagel has failed to “trac[e], step by step, the neurological development of species that appear to be located somewhere along the continuum between consciousness and non-consciousness.” Nagel and other very prominent philosophers have developed arguments which purport to show that no amount of neurological evidence could by itself even in principle explain consciousness. These arguments are extremely well-known in academic philosophy; more to the present point, they are surely well known to Wolff. Wolff may disagree with the arguments, but insofar as he pretends that they don’t exist, it is he rather than Nagel who is guilty of “philosophical malpractice.”
As I say, all of this should be pretty obvious to any fair-minded person who has read the book. It should be especially obvious to a philosopher trained to make careful distinctions and familiar with the sorts of metaphysical issues Nagel addresses. Any philosopher should also see the glaring problems with another example Wolff offers of the purported ineptness of philosophers when addressing scientific matters. He writes:
Consider a different example, this one from the medical field of neurology. One of the bits of philosophy put forward back in the day when I was actually reading philosophy was the notion of "contrast terms." It was said that pairs of terms such as "left/right" or "up/down" were defined in relation to one another in such a manner that it was impossible to understand one without understanding the other. Nobody offered any evidence for this claim. Its truth was taken as self-evident. Well, along comes the wonderful neurologist Oliver Sacks, who reports the case of a woman who, having suffered a massive cerebral stroke, lost all understanding of the concept "left" while retaining a complete understanding of the concept "right." She ate only the food on the right half of her plate and complained that the portions were too small. When she made herself up, she only put lipstick on the right half of her lips.
End quote. Well, did the woman in question really lose the concept of “left”? Maybe. Or maybe she still had it but lost the ability to apply it. Or maybe her problem was merely visual rather than cognitive. And maybe she could focus on the right side of things after her stroke only because she had had the concept of “left” to contrast “right” with before the stroke. On the other hand, maybe all this is wrong. For example, maybe there’s no sense to be made of having the concept unless you can apply it. (Though what does “can” mean here? “Can” in practice or only in principle?) Maybe there’s no way neatly to distinguish the perceptual and cognitive here. And so forth.
One thing is for sure, though, and that is that neuroscience by itself is not going to be able to answer these questions, because they are philosophical. In general, neuroscientific results never tell you anything absolutely straightforward about philosophical issues like free will, perception, consciousness, and the like. Typically, the lessons purportedly read off from the neuroscience were in fact first read into it, by neuroscientists and others unreflectively making highly challengeable philosophical assumptions. We’ve seen in earlier posts how true that is when neuroscience is claimed to shed light on free will, introspection, “mindreading,” and the mind-body problem. M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker have, in their book Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, shown how permeated with fallacies is the literature purporting to shed neuroscientific light on philosophical problems. (If Wolff were still “actually reading philosophy” he might know this.)
One of the ironies of the Nagel affair is how some of the same people who can easily see vulgar scientism for what it is when peddled by an arrogant ignoramus like Lawrence Krauss suddenly lapse into an equally vulgar scientism when the topic is evolution. Some physicists think their discipline can show how something might come from nothing? Oh dear, let us count the fallacies. Some biologists claim to be able to explain consciousness and intentionality? Have mercy on us o high ones! How low do you want us to bow? Someone in our ranks disagrees? How high do you want us to hang him?
This is a phenomenon whose explanation should be looked for not in philosophy but in social psychology -- specifically, the black sheep effect. All you have to do is put the words “Darwin” and “disagree” in the same sentence and a certain segment of the herd collectively freaks out, tripping over themselves to report the errant sheep to the wolf. And you know what wolves do to sheep.