Tuesday, September 3, 2013
It seems to me that Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos signed its own death warrant by the outrageously misplaced subtitle Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. I liked the book and I find its central arguments quite appealing, but I would never phrase the main thesis as it is spelled out in the subtitle. It is not only a horridly crude portrayal of a sophisticated philosophical critique, it instantly sets off the readers on a misguided idea of what the book intends to do. I do not know if Nagel chose this subtitle himself, and perhaps he did, but it is so incongruent with the contents of the book that it seems more likely to be an act on the part of the publishers as a marketing tactic. Half of the horrible reviews that the book has received have focused more on the what the subtitle says about the book than what the book says about the book.
To the best of my understanding, Nagel at no point demonstrates that the Materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is 'almost certainly false'. He does argue and conclude, though, that it is almost certainly incomplete, which is an entirely different thing to say. Secondly, perhaps it wasn't as obvious as I think, but the book isn't trying to refute the scientific theory of evolution by means of philosophical argumentation. The validity of scientific theories cannot be challenged in this manner. What the book aims for, instead, is the criticism of a philosophical worldview ('Materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature'), which is inspired by a materialist interpretation of evolutionary sciences but is distinct from it. The scientific and empirical facts are not the targets; there is no denial of the reality of biological evolution of species. What is argued for is a change in the way we make sense of these scientific theories, based on the argument that the mind-body problem expands to include evolution in its folds. The empirical facts of evolution stay the same whether we view nature as being teleological (as Nagel argues) or non-teleological (as the neo-Darwinian philosophical conception argues). Much of the criticism of the book as attempting to refute evolutionary science is therefore unfounded, but perhaps the guilty party is none other than the book itself, thanks to its atrocious subtitle.