On Nagel at The Stone

by Neil Rickert

Thomas Nagel has a recent post up at The Stone (the New York Times opinion site), where he presents an outline of the major ideas of his book.  Having already discussed some of Nagel’s ideas (do a search for “Nagel” on the main blog page to find the relevant posts), I shall now look at some of what Nagel says in that post.

Nagel begins with these words:

The scientific revolution of the 17th century, which has given rise to such extraordinary progress in the understanding of nature, depended on a crucial limiting step at the start: It depended on subtracting from the physical world as an object of study everything mental – consciousness, meaning, intention or purpose.

I see that as a seriously mistaken view of science.  By way of example, scientists use a lot of mathematics.  And mathematics is very much an intentional activity.  Most mathematicians agree that mathematics is not about reality.  And then there is computer science, which studies ways of processing information.  Information is an intentional entity, not a physical entity.  The physical computer is an electro-magnetic device, but much of our study of computation is in terms of bits (binary digits) which exist only as an intentional interpretation of the electro-magnetic signals.  The claim that intention and purpose have been abolished does not fit the evidence of what we see coming from science.

What science does exclude, is explanations based in mystical ideas.  Perhaps that’s an exclusion that philosophy should emulate.

Nagel seems to be bothered that there has been no solution to the “Hard Problem” of David Chalmers:

There can be a purely physical description of the neurophysiological processes that give rise to an experience, and also of the physical behavior that is typically associated with it, but such a description, however complete, will leave out the subjective essence of the experience – how it is from the point of view of its subject — without which it would not be a conscious experience at all.

For myself, I see the “hard problem” as bogus.  In essence, it wants an account of experience that is reduced to a material explanation.  It seems a strange requirement.  Much of empiricist philosophy consists of reducing the material world to experience.  If we can also reduce experience to a materialist account, it seems to me that we will have completed a solipsistic circle that has left out reality.

I’m puzzled that philosophers such as Nagel see it as a problem for science, if no solution is offered for the “hard problem.”  Understanding the nature of conscious experience seems to me to be more of a philosopher’s problem than a scientist’s problem.  I have noted in an earlier post, that I believe I have a pretty good understanding of the mind.  I reached that understanding by doing philosophy, albeit heretical philosophy.  In particular, I dared to question what is taken for granted by philosophy, to look at such questions as “What’s a fact?

Nagel argues:

This means that the scientific outlook, if it aspires to a more complete understanding of nature, must expand to include theories capable of explaining the appearance in the universe of mental phenomena and the subjective points of view in which they occur – theories of a different type from any we have seen so far.

But why should science explain what is really a philosopher’s problem?  While we often talk about scientific explanation, science is  mainly about what we can measure, control and predict.  Questions about mental phenomena do not seem to easily fit into the domain of science.  Philosophy itself is an elaborate intellectual structure.  But it is a house of cards, build only on crude folk concepts and made up “just so” stories.  That’s what needs to change.

3 Comments to “On Nagel at The Stone”

  1. Seriously, you’ve heard physicists or biologists include intention as a PRIMARY cause? (i’m not talking about intention in animals that is based on some underlying physical process).

    Perhaps you’re thinking of Rumi: “The entire Koran, from beginning to end, is teaching nothing but abandonment of belief in phenomenal causation.” Now there’s something worth more than anything I’ve heard from any scientist (or western philosopher, for that matter) for at least 3 centuries.


    • Apparently, your reading of Nagel is different from mine. I’m not seeing the “primary” stipulation there.


      • I misunderstood. It wasn’t about Nagel. I thought you were proposing the idea that science already allows for purpose and intention as primary causes when you challenged the idea that purpose and intention had been abolished.

        Nagel hit it right on the head – the idea that science gives us even the remotest clue how to THINK about the question as to whether purpose and intention might be primary causes is so bizarre and incoherent that there’s no way to answer it directly. The best recourse is to Iain McGilchrist who shows, I think, better than almost any other critic of science how an almost frightening imbalance in the working of the brain, a profound disharmony, is responsible for the inability to understand the kinds of things that Nagel is trying, fitfully, awkwardly, to say, though I think McGilchrist says it much better. Perhaps Axis II is a better word than imbalance – but I know people outside the clinical world don’t like interpreting things in terms of diagnoses and god knows the DSM is a tragedy.


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