On David Snoke on Nagel’s book

by Neil Rickert

Physicist David Snoke has written a review of Thomas Nagel’s book “Mind and Cosmos” (h/t Uncommon Descent):

In this post, I shall discuss Snoke’s review.  I suppose that makes it a review of a review.

I have previously discussed Nagel’s book on this blog — you can find those posts with a search on the main blog page.  I clearly disagreed with a lot of what Nagel wrote in his book.  By contrast, Snoke seems to like the book.

While I disagree with Snoke about the book, I do think Snoke’s review is well worth reading.  Nagel’s book is not to everyone’s taste, and some might find it a hard read.  Snoke, in his review, gives a synopsis of what he sees are some of the important parts of the book.  So I’ll recommend that you read the Snoke review, particularly if you want to get an overview of what Nagel was arguing.

The parts I disliked most in Nagel’s book were in chapter 2, where Nagel directly criticizes Darwinism and naturalism.  And I disliked it, because I saw Nagel as attacking a strawman.  Snoke says very little about that part of the book.  He quickly gets to the more interesting parts.

The mind

Snokes quickly gets to the question of the mind, which is a major concern of Nagel.

For Nagel, the elephant in the room which has not been adequately explained by the theory of evolution, by a long shot, is the existence of Mind.  We all live every day with our whole experience governed by our experience with Mind.  Nagel asks how we can consider any explanation of life adequate which fails to explain this predominating fact.  Even if we had a complete theory of evolution with all the physical mechanisms (A) which explained the existence of brains (B), it would fail to explain Mind (C) unless it could be shown that the physical mechanisms are intrinsically connected to the existence of Mind.

I certainly agree that there are unanswered questions about the nature and existence of mind.  The puzzle, for me, is why Nagel and Snoke seem to believe that this is an issue for the theory of evolution.

Look at that last sentence I have quoted above.  To me, that pretty much describes the limits of what we can expect from investigations based on the theory of evolution.  And Snoke agrees that it would fail to answer the questions that people have about the mind.  So it cannot be the job of evolutionary scientists to answer those questions.

As I see it, the people who should be able to answer the questions we have about mind, are the philosophers.  Regrettably, I see philosophy of mind as two millenia of failure.  And it seems unlikely that this will change in the near future.

On reflection, it is surprising that the existence of Mind has not been considered a major problem to address in evolutionary thought.

That’s surely a strange comment.  Many people see questions about the mind as major questions.  However, the issue is not one of having questions, but one of having answers.  And it is hard to see why the study of biological evolution would lead to answers about the mind.

Consciousness, cognition

The standard narrative of evolution is that having minds makes people better able to find resources and avoid threats, and this favored their survival in competition with other species.  But this explains only those abilities: resource-finding and threat-avoidance. It does not explain some pervasive, fundamental aspects of Mind which seem unrelated to those goals.  Nagel lists these under the categories of Consciousness, Cognition, and Value.

Snoke correctly describes the kind of thing that ordinary evolutionary theory can investigate.  But Snoke finds that inadequate.  Or, at least, he sees Nagel as finding it inadequate.  I agree that the indicated kind of answer does not settle all of the questions that we have about mind.  However, at least in my opinion, it does settle the questions that we can reasonably expect evolutionary biologists to address.  If Nagel sees these shortcomings as a problem, I think he should be pointing the finger of blame at philosophy rather than at evolutionary biology.

Many philosophers have noted that consciousness, or self-awareness (what the great Christian brain scientist Donald Mackay called the “I-story,” that is, the internal story), is not required for even sophisticated analysis of threats or available resources.  Well-functioning mindless computers can do the same.  While some of my response to my environment is governed by subconscious, computer-like activities, I also have another whole level of experience which is not merely stimulus and response, which defines my sense of “me.”

I believe Snoke is mistaken about that.  And, so are many others.  Snoke believes that a well functioning mindless computer (or robot) can deal with the analysis of threats and available resources.

Alan Turing published his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” in 1950, and that is often seen as the beginning of the study of AI (Artificial Intelligence).  Let’s suppose that Turing and others at that time had the computer speeds and memory sizes available to them, that are commonplace today.  And lets suppose, for this thought experiment, that they had available the best programmers who could create the kind of well functioning mindless computer that Snoke is discussing.

Now here is my question.  Let’s take that imagined well functioning mindless computer, built in 1950.  And let’s ask how it would deal with the analysis of threats and available resource that we see today (in 2014).  Would that well functioning mindless computer even recognize identity theft as a potential threat?  Would that well functioning mindless computer recognize the potential of satisfying its economic needs by designing apps for a iPhone?

I see the answer as a clear “No”.  The great benefit of consciousness is its ability to adapt to changing circumstances.  The area of machine learning, within AI, has not come close to providing that adaptive capability.  A well functioning mindless computer, built for the 1950s era, would only be able to solve the kinds of problems that were known to its programmers in the 1950s.  It would not be able to adapt to deal with the new problems such as we see in 2014.


In addition to self awareness, our minds also lead us to think we know things that are true, i.e., to have cognition. Why do we believe we know true things? Does evolution explain our sense of truth?

Here, Snoke points the finger of blame at evolution, for failing to explain truth.  But, again, I am puzzled as to why he should expect evolution to explain truth.  Surely, that is a question for philosophy.  And, in my opinion, philosophy has failed us there.

I seriously doubt that a lion or a barbary ape ever has to contemplate truth.  It seems to me that non-human animals can get along quite well without having a concept of truth.  Likewise, it seems to me that a solitary human would not have much use for truth.  So I see truth as social, something that we need in our conversations with one another.  And that makes truth something like a human artifact.  And, if it is an artifact, then perhaps social psychology should be the area of science that concerns itself with the concept of truth.  It is hard to see how evolutionary biology would have anything to contribute.


I see Snoke’s review as very readable, and as providing an excellent presentation of many of the issues that Nagel raises in his book.  However, I clearly disagree with Snoke’s take on those issues.


2 Comments to “On David Snoke on Nagel’s book”

  1. Hi, I am from Australia.
    But what about Consciousness with a capital C?
    Please check out http://spiralledlight.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/4068


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