More Voices of Reason and Blundering into the Abyss

Cracks in the edifice here.

Nagel has hit the naturalists where they hurt most: namely, by taking their philosophy with the seriousness it deserves and then forcing upon them an existential decision. Unfortunately the politically correct version of naturalism that currently dominates academic philosophy finesses that decision by hiding behind an idealised vision of Darwin as someone who would have welcomed, say, the molecular revolution in genetics but without ever having licensed the grisly side of eugenics.

In contrast, Nagel sees quite clearly that the trajectory of twentieth century biology radically challenges our conventional self-understanding as human beings. I would say that science is pushing us in two rather opposing directions – either towards being more like the other animals or being more like a deity capable of creating such animals. Although Nagel himself refuses to look over this precipice, he does not share the wishful thinking of his critics who might simply blunder into the abyss.

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2 Responses to More Voices of Reason and Blundering into the Abyss

  1. Burk Braun says:


    It is nice to hear about the Mary McKillop cannonization. Something magical must have been going on!

    This article, insofar as it should be taken seriously at all, only points to the pathetic state of academic philosophy in general. They are losing touch with reality, and don't seem to know or care. So much the worse for them. If you are dealing with philosophy of mind, and take a non-naturalist position, you are cutting off your head to spite your body … is the way I would put it. Good luck with that .. it won't get you anywhere useful, but only recite your own intuitions.

    “Philosophers think about “common sense” nowadays in more culturally relative terms, with the backing of anthropology and sometimes even evolutionary psychology.”

    Speak of the devil!

    “The nub of Nagel's concern is that, from a Darwinian standpoint, consciousness – and other prima facie distinctive human traits – are entrenched by-products of the biological reproduction process.”

    This is not true. We really do not know how central consciousness is to our overall mental capabilities, or indeed how far down the ladder of being consciousness reaches. A fuller understanding of the science is probably going to lead to the realization that consciousness is essential to a level of unified mental functioning beyond some primitive level. Which is to say that all mammals (at least) have some form of consciousness that we would recognize.

    So it may be the product, not the by-product. The jury is still out on that issue.

    “… devotees of a kind of self-loathing Darwinism that flourished under the aegis of Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard in the 1970s and 80s. Its moral compass is anchored in the atrocities that were committed in the twentieth century in the name of biological progress. ”

    Completely absurd.. this is the kind of bilge one would expect on FOX news, not a intellectual reveiw.

    “Relatively little actual work in biology – at least as we understand the science today – has been inspired by Darwin, a field naturalist whose interests and competence did not extend to the micro-structure of life. Indeed, Darwin's theory, rather like Marx's in the social sciences, has been influential as a post facto covering account of a variety of research findings in biology that could also be explained by other, more topic- and discipline-specific means.”

    Nope- he is blowing smoke here. While protein crystallographers may spend their days doing math and chemistry, their ultimate accounts of how the structures they are seeing came to be and change over time have everything to do with Darwin's theory. The people doing HIV sgtuctural work see this natural selection in action in very short time scales, in their structures and other aspects of the virus. Whether the account is post-facto or not, there is no other account that will do in the slightest degree.

    … cont …


  2. Burk Braun says:

    All that said, there is a point to this reveiw that I appreciate- that biology confers on us enormous knowledge and potential power. We see this in the GMO debate, throwing out alot of scare-PR about frankenfoods and the like, even though no harm from these molecular methods is known. But what happens when we tinker with our own genomes? We know from the body-enhancement and drug-enhancement industries (as well as the eugenics era) that there are always some with less humility than we would like, who plunge into the unknown technical frontiers with amoral gusto.

    “I would say that science is pushing us in two rather opposing directions – either towards being more like the other animals or being more like a deity capable of creating such animals.

    Well, the need to traffic in deities is something of a mental tic, it seems. At any rate, he is right that we are animals, still obvious in countless ways. And we have leveraged the general power of our minds and culture (after the slow evolution of so many epochs) to gather up amazing technological knowledge and mastery. He mentions nuclear physics as a evolutionarily counter-productive development. But I would suggest the opposite. It has shocked humanity into several decades of extraordinary peace. When was the last world war?

    PS: At any rate I have ordered the Nagel book from the library system and look forward to taking a peek at it.


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