Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos is drawing quick responses. (Can't wait to read Mohan's!) Both in the hostile review by Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg as well as in the more cautious strategic pivot by Alva Noë (who doesn't engage critically with Nagel's book), mythic history of the scientific revolution plays significant rhetorical roles.
Let's start with Noë:
If there is mind — and of course the great scientific revolutionaries such as Descartes and Newton would not deny that there is mind — it exists apart from and unconnected to the material world as this was conceived of by the New Science.--Alva Noë (NPR)
Let's accept Noë's point about Descartes. But Newton thought minds had to be somewhere in space and in time, extended but "indivisible." Incidentally, this is also Newton's doctrine about "the Maker and Lord of all things" who "cannot be never and no where." (Principia, General Scholium.) And at one point earlier in his career, Newton also flirted with the idea that an extended body had to be the kind of thing that was capable of exciting various perceptions in the senses and imagination of minds (this is from a piece known as "De Gravitatione;" I am linking to a very nice treatment by Zvi Biener and Chris Smeenk.) [Note that I am not drawing on the infamous sensorium passage at all.]
That is to say, Newton did not sign up for what
Bernard Williams called the Absolute Conception of Reality. This is a conception of the world as "it really is" entirely apart from how it appears to us: a colorless, odorless value-free domain of particles and complexes moving in accordance with timeless and immutable mathematical laws. The world so conceived has no place for mind in it. No intention. (Quoting from Noë; see Howard Stein on Newton's views on color here, or me here.)
In correspondence Noë gracefully acknowledged this point.
It is an interesting question when exactly and why the Absolute Conception of Reality became the dominant picture in natural science, and when (perhaps earlier) it might have become inevitably so. Based on some preliminary research by one of my PhD students, Marij Van Strien, I suspect the shift occurs in the last decades of the nineteenth century, although the strength of Positivism (and Kantianism) blunts it. (This is not to deny there are Materialists before and after the start of the Scientific Revolution.)
I return to Noë below. Let me now quote a passage from the Leiter/Weisberg review:
Surely we have some reason for thinking, some four centuries after the start of the scientific revolution, that (c) Aristotle was on the wrong track and that we are not, or at least not yet. Our reasons for thinking this are obvious and uncontroversial: mechanistic explanations and an (a) abandonment of supernatural causality proved enormously fruitful in expanding our ability to predict and control the world around us. The fruits of the scientific revolution, though at (d) odds with common sense, allow us to send probes to Mars and to understand why washing our hands prevents the spread of disease. We may, of course, be wrong in having (b) abandoned teleology and the supernatural as our primary tools for understanding and explaining the natural world, but (d) the fact that “common sense” conflicts with a layman’s reading of popular science writing is not a good reason for thinking so.--The Nation.
Before I say anything else, I share Leiter's & Weisberg's suspicion of the intellectual alliance between Creationists and prominent anti-Darwinians in philosophy (recall my post about Nagel's tactical review of Plantinga), and I worry that expressing public criticisms of Leiter/Weisberg may become an "instrument of mischief." The passage I quote from them is a response to a genuinely silly claim by Nagel (“The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle’s day.” You can find it in Nagel's "Introduction.") Even so, philosophy is not party-politics, and we ought to keep 'our' side honest, too.
In the context of the larger review, this passage suggests four things:
- (a) That Aristotle defended supernatural causation, and had no other explanatory resources than final causes.
- (b) That the scientific revolution somehow did away with teleology (cf. "(Teleology—the idea that natural phenomena have built-in purposes or ends—was central to Aristotelian science, and it remained very influential until the scientific revolution.)"
- (c) That Leiter and Weisberg have remarkably little respect for the success stories within Aristotelian science(s).
- (d) That they seem to equate Aristotle with common sense (here and elsewhere in the piece).
On (a) I am no Aristotle scholar. But I read Aristotle as a relentless naturalist with an unmoved mover uninterested in the goings on in the world. (I am open to correction from more learned readers.) His final causes are rooted in the worldly natures of worldly things. Such natures and material stuff are constraints on any teleological explanation; I bet that even the most hard-nosed Darwinian would be impressed by the extraordinary detail and empirical richness of Aristole's biological writings. In the Leiter/Weisberg passage there is a slide between Aristotle, and Aristotelian science in the hands of Scholastics (more than a millenium apart). (There are more such slides, including the amusing suggestion that prior to the Copernican revolution folk believed the earth was flat, but given that they are writing for a popular audience I will cut them rhetorical slack.)
On (b): Newtonian successes were used to keep teleology in science well until the 19th century. (I have published on this.) Now we have to be a bit precise here. Local final causes were, indeed, largely removed from physics during the scientific revolution. But as Margaret Osler showed in a classic article, various general final causes (aka providential design arguments) were, despite the brilliance and ridicule of Spinoza and Hume, extremely popular among a host of prominent natural philosophers, from Boyle, Newton (recall the General Scholium), Colin MacLaurin, Euler, Herschel, all the way even to Maxwell (as regular readers of this blog know). Darwin did really shift the terms of debate in the nineteenth century.
In correspondence Weisberg and I agreed about this much. Even so, it is an open question if teleology has ever been fully eliminated from physics (and if so, when); Leibniz promoted least action principles, and variational principles have remained popular through Hertz, Hamilton, into quantum mechanics. This is not the place to decide whether such principles must be interpreted as teleological (and in what sense 'teleological' has been transformed along the way); all I claim is that they have been understood as teleological by prominent philosophers-scientists. (To be clear, this is probably far removed from Nagel's promotion of teleology as ‘biased toward the marvelous.’)
On (c): as my undergraduate teacher, George Smith, always liked to point out: a canonically Aristotelian science, Ptolemy's astronomy, is much better at predicting celestial phenomena than the predictive power of much contemporary science a few branches of recent physics excepted. [I know some folk think that the Aristotelian part is not intrinsic to Ptolemy's approach.] This is not to deny that discarding Aristotelian principles also facilitated a lot of progress. But Aristotelian science shouldn't be equated with the Dark Ages.
On (d): if Aristotelian science is common sense why don't we find Aristotelian science in lots of other places? (And how come so many-culturally-related-to-Aristotle-Greeks [Platonists, Atomists, later Stoics, etc] insisted on disagreeing with him?) Aristotelian science is a majestic achievement, not some kind of articulation of pre-existing common sense. (This is not to deny that there is some, occasional overlap.) But about this some other time more.
Now, does any of this matter, or have I just engaged in an amusing "gotcha" without philosophical substance? In both pieces the present authority of what is taken as 'science' is at issue. Even in philosophy this authority does not just work its way by argument, but also by the image of success or failure it can project.
To return to him for a moment, Noë is clear about what is at stake:
If modern science begins by shaping a conception of the cosmos, its subject matter, in such a way as to exclude mind and life, then it shouldn't come as a surprise that we can't seem to find a place for them in the natural order so conceived.
For Noë modern science, despite its impressive achievements, was basically conceived in sin (I apologize to Alva for using this kind of terminology--it's not his); it can describe and manipulate local mechanisms at the cost of some large remaining gaps in understanding. Thus, our present philosophical predicaments can be traced back to it. [A quick glance at Nagel's book suggests this is also the point of the pseudo "brief history" presented in chapter 3.] Noë doesn't want to do away with modern science, but he would like to reform it and draw on philosophical and scientific resources that have been developed, in part, in opposition to the Absolute Conception of Reality. (This is why he likes Nagel's questions even though he can't bring himself to say anything nice about Nagel's arguments.) But if the Absolute Conception of Reality is not an intrinsic feature of modern science, but itself historically accrued to it, then there may be untapped resources available in the roots of our world view.
Leiter & Weisberg could more easily avoid the claims that I criticize and still successfully target Nagel. Nothing I argue here undermines their claims about the existence of "a massively successful scientific research program" since the scientific revolution. Even so, they rely on a stronger image: one that insists that prior to the Scientific Revolution all was Darkness, and that since there is justifiable confidence that all the important outstanding questions can eventually be answered by this progressive and progressing program. (The historical irony is that this image was promoted by second generation Newtonians within philosophy in order to argue for a science that included natural theology against Spinozists.) But we do not have to buy into Noë's original sin view to question if science as presently organized will secure answers to the important questions. We just don't know.
Finally, I agree with Leiter & Weisberg that philosophers should be cautious about playing "to evolution deniers, intelligent-design acolytes, religious fanatics and others who are not really interested in the substantive scientific and philosophical issues." But we should also be cautious about peddling myths about the past and future of science. For given the authority of science to settle debate within philosophy, we philosophers can succumb to such myths, too.