Top critical review
One person found this helpful
though many species can do some of these better than we can
on 8 May 2016
My first action with a book new to me is to look at the index. With less than a hundred entries in this one, of which sixty are names, I feared a shallow treatment of this challenging title. Sadly the test was right; there isn’t even an entry for ‘consciousness’.
Nagel's basic thesis is that the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, to quote the book's subtitle. He cites as evidence for this the improbability of random genetic mutation being the source of sufficient diversity to allow the evolution of the mind, consciousness, rationality, value-judgement and other such components of human behaviour. He gives no evidence for this conclusion but merely asserts it frequently. He would be right if our behaviour were under genetic control, i.e. instinctive, but much of it isn’t – we learn; and this simple fact makes for a simple explanation.
Three facts point the way to understanding: First, having passed through two evolutionary bottlenecks, human beings have, when compared with nearly related species, little genetic diversity. Second, we have an astonishingly adaptable body form: no other large animal can run, jump, climb, crawl and swim, though many species can do some of these better than we can. Third, we are highly social and recognise about 150 other individuals. This last has led to the evolution of a brain that is amply large enough for the behaviour that causes Nagel’s doubts.
Our massive brains are inhabited by ideas. Ideas resemble living things in that they multiply (by being learned or imitated), they vary (by imperfect imitation) and are selected (by our conscious choices). These attributes are, of course, the mechanism of evolution, so it is clear that ideas and our behaviour can evolve. They not only evolve but can do so in seconds. Nagel’s difficulties on page 78 disappear with this understanding. For human beings to have evolved genetically to survive in all the habitats we presently occupy would have taken millions of years, yet we occupied these habitats in a few millennia, and we did so by exchanging ideas. Mind, consciousness, value-judgements morality etc. and other such attributes are simply explained from this point of view.
Nagel argues that, because mind etc. exist, the propensity for them must have been present in the primordial material at the origin of the universe. He calls the precursor to the mind: 'protomental character of the elements' (pp 61, 63), Then of course the proto-everything-else character must also exist in the elements as well to cover all possible outcomes of random interaction. He suggests that the existence of these propensities influenced the direction of evolution by some evolutionary force other than the Darwinian mechanism. I find this very much harder to accept than the outline sketched above.
Acquaintanceship with chimpanzee politics or primate philosophers, as in Franz de Waal's formulation, reveals that the behavioural components listed above are obviously sensible strategies for enhancing individual and group fitness. In other words higher primates, including our ancestors, who showed the most rudimentary steps towards consciousness, would have been at a reproductive advantage over individuals that did not.
I have another quibble with Mind and Cosmos and it is that Nagel seems unaware, or certainly doesn't cite, two important areas of understanding that are highly relevant to his subject matter. They are the origin of life (pp 56, 63), and human morality (pp 28, 75, 105, 121). Both topics are understood to a reasonably satisfactory level: see the works of Addy Pross and W D Hamilton. Because these two transitions in universal evolution seemed so miraculous, their attribution to divine intervention has come down to us through the ancient Greeks, Aquinas and Descartes to persist in many religious beliefs as the concept of a soul. I suspect that Nagel is still under this influence. At least he could have pointed out that the origin of life, being a transition in chemistry, can be discovered, whereas what constitutes morality, being a fundamental concept, can only be decided on.
Bearing in mind Einstein's scathing definition, invoking common sense as evidence for a thesis is risky (pp 5, 29). In my view, common sense is no more than a bundle of prejudices derived from parental instructions, misremembered experiences and feelings that have their origins in animal ancestors. It evades thinking.
In short, I am not clear why this book was published, other than to satisfy some yearning for an ultimate truth that appears beyond human understanding. That truth is there, of course, as Spinoza pointed out: Deus sive Natura – God as Nature. Creation was immanent, not transcendental.