By Robert Hanna
You can download and read or share a .pdf of the complete text of this essay HERE.
Nagel & Me: Beyond The Mechanistic Worldview
Nine Years After
Nine years after, I think it’s safe to say that Thomas Nagel’s 2012 book, Mind and Cosmos[i] was extremely controversial, both inside the intellectual hothouse of professional academic philosophy and also outside it, in the larger natural and social-institutional world in which we live, move, and have our being.
Indeed, Mind and Cosmos created an intellectual flap that was big enough to make it into the pages of the New York Times.[ii]
And then, also in the pages of the NYT, Nagel himself finally replied to all the criticism, by re-summarizing “the core of ‘Mind and Cosmos’.”[iii]
But, perhaps predictably, Nagel’s reply only drew down upon him even more self-righteous intellectual fire and brimstone.
And then, sadly, the controversy devolved into little more than a name-calling dialectical and rhetorical slugfest between hardcore scientistic atheists on the one hand, and hardcore creationistic theists on the other.
My critical response to the intellectual flap and its dialectical and rhetorical devolution was, and is: a plague on both their houses!
Correspondingly, what I want to do here is twofold: (i) to place the controversy about Mind and Cosmos in a larger philosophical context and (ii) to propose a way of re-reformulating and strengthening Nagel’s basic line of argument.
But before doing that, here’s a relevant joke.
Of course, the first part of the title of this little essay, Nagel & Me, is a spin on Michael Moore’s highly satirical and broadly socialist 1989 documentary, Roger & Me.[iv]
Correspondingly, the joke is twofold.
First, as far as I can tell, I’m just about the only other philosopher in the world, apart from Nagel himself, who originally strongly endorsed, and who still continues strongly to endorse, the core arguments in Mind and Cosmos.
Second, as far as I can tell, Nagel didn’t, and still doesn’t, know either me or my work from, … well, as they used to say in my hometown Winnipeg circa 1975, a hole in the ground.
Now that’s what I call funny, because if I’m correct, then in fact not only (i) the mind-body problem (i.e., what explains the existence of consciousness, intentionality, and mental causation in a purportedly essentially non-mental physical world?), and (ii) the free will problem (i.e., what explains the existence of real free choice and practical agency in a purportedly essentially deterministic or indeterministic physical world?), but also (iii) the cosmological fine-tuning problem (what explains the existence of the very special initial conditions, natural laws, and causal-evolutionary developments required for organismic life and minds like ours in a purportedly essentially purposeless physical world?), have, for all philosophical intents and purposes, been solved by Nagel and by me.
Q: OK: assuming that there really is an elective affinity between Nagel’s work and yours, then how did you two solve these three exceptionally hard problems?
A: By, first, systematically criticizing and decisively refuting The Mechanistic Worldview, and then, second, by systematically formulating and defending The Neo-Organicist Worldview and then cogently presenting it as the only philosophically and scientifically acceptable alternative to The Mechanistic Worldview.
The Two Worldviews Problem
Next, here’s the larger philosophical context.
There’s a fundamental philosophical problem that I’ll call The Two Worldviews Problem.
This problem goes back at least as far as Immanuel Kant’s late 18th century philosophical blockbusters, the Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787) and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), wherein both worldviews are represented.
But the same fundamental problem has also been showing up, pretty explicitly and vividly, roughly every twenty or thirty years during the 20th and 21st centuries, especially including:
(ia) Bertrand Russell’s 1927 Analysis of Matter,[v] together with The Vienna Circle’s 1929 manifesto “The Scientific Conception of the World,”[vi]
(ib) Henri Bergson’s 1907 Creative Evolution,[vii] together with A.N. Whitehead’s 1929 Process and Reality,[viii]
(iia) Wilfrid Sellars’s 1963 book, Science, Perception, and Reality,[ix]
(iib) Nagel’s 1974 and 1979 essays, “What is It Like to Be a Bat?” and “Panpsychism,”[x]
(iiia) Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book, A Brief History of Time,[xi] together with Jaegwon Kim’s 2005 book, Physicalism, Or Something Near Enough,[xiii]
(iiib) Ilya Prigogine’s 1997 book, The End of Certainty,[xiii] together with Nagel’s 2012 Mind and Cosmos.
According to The Mechanistic Worldview, everything in the natural world taken as a whole and also in all its basic parts, aka the cosmos, is essentially either a formal automaton or formal machine (i..e, a formal mechanism), or a natural automaton or natural machine (i.e., a natural mechanism).
More precisely, the doctrine of universal formal mechanism says that all communicative content, semantic content, logical content, and information content more generally, is strictly determined by Turing-computable algorithms and/or primitive recursive functions;[xiv] and the doctrine of universal natural mechanism says that all the causal powers of everything whatsoever in the natural world are ultimately fixed by what can be digitally computed on a universal deterministic or indeterministic real-world Turing machine, provided that the following three plausible “causal orderliness” and “decompositionality” assumptions are all satisfied: (i) its causal powers are necessarily determined by the general deterministic or indeterministic causal natural laws, especially including The Conservation Laws, and The 1st and 2nd Laws of Thermodynamics, together with all the settled quantity-of-matter-and/or-energy facts about the past, especially including The Big Bang, (ii) the causal powers of the real-world Turing machine are held fixed under the general causal laws of nature, and (iii) the “digits” over which the real-world Turing machine computes constitute a complete denumerable set of spatiotemporally discrete physical objects.
Therefore, if The Mechanistic Worldview is true, then all organisms are nothing but more-or-less complex biological automata, or “survival machines,”[xv] and we’re nothing but “biochemical puppets”[xvi] or “moist robots.”[xvii]
By a diametric contrast, according to The Neo-Organicist worldview defended by Nagel and me, (i) natural or physical nature is essentially processual, purposive, and self-organizing, hence essentially non-mechanical, and (ii) there’s a single, unbroken metaphysical continuity between The Big Bang Singularity, temporally asymmetric/unidirectional, non-equilibrium thermodynamic, negentropic energy flows that exhibit inherent dynamic complexity and self-organization,[xviii] autopoietic organismic life,[xix] conscious human animals, their rationality, their free agency (i.e., their free will + their practical agency), and their dignity.
Or as Nagel puts it in Mind and Cosmos,
[R]ational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order.[xx]
On a teleological account, the existence of value is not an accident, because that is part of the explanation of why there is such a thing as life, with all its possibilities oif development and variation. In brief, value is not just an accidental side effect of life; rather, there is life because life is a necessary condition of value.
Even though natural selection partially determines the details of the forms of life and consciousness that exist, and the relations among them, the existence of the genetic material and the possible forms it makes available for selection have to be explained in some other way. The teleological hypothesis is that these things [are] determined not merely by value-free chemistry and physics but also by something else, namely a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them.[xxi]
In a nutshell, then, here’s the problem: is The Mechanistic Worldview true?, or diametrically on the contrary, is The Neo-Organicist Worldview true?
The Neo-Organicist Worldview in Twenty Theses
Now, to propose a way of re-reformulating and strengthening Nagel’s basic line of argument.
Since, as I mentioned above, Nagel doesn’t know me from a hole in the ground, I haven’t actually asked him about this: but according to me, it’s possible to formulate The Neo-Organicist Worldview compactly in twenty theses, each one a single sentence — 768 words in total.[xxii]
Moreover, for each thesis, there’s also an endnote that cites some book(s) or some article(s), in which either I’ve explicitly argued for that thesis or else there’s currently a project underway to provide empirical tests for it.
1. Human minds are necessarily and completely embodied, and identical to the complex dynamic, spontaneously activating, intentional-action-guiding, global structures of suitably complex living organisms belonging to the human species, i.e., human animals (the essential embodiment thesis).[xxiii]
2. As essentially embodied and inherently dynamic, human minds are also inherently enactive and environmentally embedded (the enactivity-and-embeddedness thesis).[xxiv]
3. Human animals are, necessarily, sociable social animals (the sociable sociality thesis).[xxv]
4. Social institutions partially causally determine, form, and normatively guide our essentially embodied minds — our thoughts, emotions, and actions — and typically do so without our being self-consciously aware of how, or even that, we’re being significantly affected in these ways (the mind-shaping thesis).[xxvi]
5. There is a fundamental distinction between (5.1) destructive, deforming social institutions that frustrate and warp true human needs, and (5.2) constructive, enabling social institutions that satisfy and sustain true human needs (the two-kinds-of-social-institutions thesis).[xxvii]
6. Enacting salient changes in the structure and complex dynamics of a social institution produces corresponding salient changes in the structure and complex dynamics of the essentially embodied minds of the participants, for better or worse (the enactive-transformative thesis).[xxviii]
7. Although destructive, deforming social institutions shape human minds in an inherently bad/oppressive, unhealthy, and enslaving/heteronomous way, nevertheless it’s also possible to devolve such institutions and also simultaneously to create constructive, enabling social institutions that are inherently good/non-oppressive, healthy, and emancipatory/autonomous (the social devolution-social creation thesis).[xxix]
8. All human thinking is really possible only insofar as it’s partially causally determined, formed, and normatively guided by either (i) mechanical, constrictive thought-shapers in a bad, false, and wrong way, or (ii) organic, generative thought-shapers in a good, true, and right way (the thought-shaper thesis).[xxx]
9. Because all human thinking is mediated by language, and because language is a fundamental social institution, then the thought-shaper thesis falls directly under the mind-shaping thesis: therefore, ubiquitous mind-shaping in human social institutions and ubiquitous thought-shaping in human thinking are the essential forms of human life-shaping (the life-shaping thesis).[xxxi]
10. Everything in the world flows, grows, reposes, and repurposes (the neo-organicist thesis).[xxxii]
11. Minds of any kind are the essentially embodied, mechanically irreducible, and spontaneously activating global dynamic forms of suitably complex organismic — aka animal — life (the neo-Aristotelian hylomorphism thesis).[xxxiii]
12. Free agency is the essentially embodied, mechanically irreducible, and spontaneously activating global dynamic form of rational human minded animal life (the natural libertarian thesis).[xxxiv]
13. You have freedom-in-life, and you are identical to your life (the deep-freedom-&-real-persons thesis).[xxxv]
14. Human knowledge is sufficiently justified true belief, the fully activated and saliently perfected global dynamic form of human cognition (the categorical epistemology thesis).[xxxvi]
15. Logic is the set of categorically normative, innately specified first principles of human theoretical rationality, when taken together with all the supplementary humanly-constructed ceteris paribus principles of an open-ended plurality of logical systems, just as morality is the set of categorically normative, innately specified first principles of human practical rationality, when taken together with all the supplementary humanly-constructed ceteris paribus principles of an open-ended plurality of moral systems (the morality-of-logic thesis).[xxxvii]
16. Human dignity is the absolute, non-denumerably infinite, intrinsic, objective value of all human persons — i.e., rational human animals, from the pre-natal emergence of their consciousness to their deaths — no matter how well or badly they have chosen or acted: therefore, we all ought to choose and act in all and only those ways that sufficiently respect everyone’s human dignity, everywhere and everywhen, whatever the consequences (the humanist dignitarian thesis).[xxxviii]
17. The meaning of human life is the wholehearted pursuit and partial realization of principled authenticity, in moral solidarity with all other people, and with moral concern for all minded animals, in a thoroughly nonideal[xxxix] natural and social world (the existential Kantian ethics thesis).[xl]
18. Cosmic dignity is the proto-dignity of a thoroughly nonideal natural world that, by necessarily conforming to the innately specified structure of the rational human animal mind, not only makes us really possible, but also actual: therefore, the natural world ought never to be treated as a mere means or a mere thing, and ought always to be be treated in all and only those ways that are consistent with sufficient respect for human dignity (the cosmic dignitarian thesis).[xli]
19. We all ought to exit the State and enter the Kosmopolis, the universal human cosmopolitan dignitarian ethical community that’s beyond all neoliberal, coercive authoritarian nation-States and State-like social institutions (the dignitarian anarcho-socialism thesis).[xlii]
20. Humankind can avoid the impending climate-change apocalypse and also morally fix the world, in only four days — per week, that is — by making it really possible for people everywhere to practice peaceful green four-day weekends (the how-to-save-the-world-in-four-days thesis).[xliii]
A Final Examination Question By Way of A Conclusion
Now I’ll conclude my essay with a question of the sort I always used to ask on final examinations, and then leave answering that question up to you, as “a task for the reader.”
Here are two contrary worldviews:
1. The Mechanistic Worldview, as believed by the majority of 20th and 21st century professional academic philosophers and leading scientists.
2. The Neo-Organicist Worldview, as believed by Nagel & me, and by a minority of 20th and 21st century leading scientists (for example, Whitehead and Prigogine).
In your opinion, if either of these worldviews is true, then which one is true?, and please give detailed reasons for your answer.[xliv]
[i] T. Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012).
[ii] J. Schluessler, “An Author Attracts Unlikely Allies,” New York Times (6 February 2013), available online at URL = <https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/07/books/thomas-nagel-is-praised-by-creationists.html>.
[iii] T. Nagel, “The Core of ‘Mind and Cosmos’,” New York Times (18 August 2013), available online at URL = <https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/the-core-of-mind-and-cosmos/>.
[iv] See, e.g., Wikipedia, “Roger & Me” (2021), available online at URL = <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_%26_Me>.
[v] B. Russell, The Analysis of Matter (London: Kegan Paul, 1927).
[vi] The Vienna Circle, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” in S. Sarkar (ed.), The Emergence of Logical Empiricism: From 1900 to the Vienna Circle (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 321–340.
[vii] H. Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. A. Mitchell (New York: Random House, 1944).
[viii] A.N. Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (corrected edn., New York: The Free Press, 1978).
[ix] W. Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963).
[x] T. Nagel, T. “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?,” and “Panpsychism,” both in T. Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 165–180 and pp. 181–195.
[xi] S. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988).
[xii] J. Kim, Physicalism, or Something Near Enough (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2005).
[xiii] I. Prigogine, The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature (New York: Free Press, 1997).
[xiv] See, e.g., A. Turing, “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, series 2, 42, 1936), pp. 230–265, with corrections in 43, 1937, pp. 644–546; A. Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Mind 59 (1950): 433–460; and G. Boolos and R. Jeffrey, Computability and Logic (3rd edn., Cambridge, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989).
[xv] See R. Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006).
[xvi] See, e.g., S. Harris, Free Will (New York: Free Press, 2012).
[xvii] “Moist robots” is Daniel Dennett’s deflationary epithet for humankind, borrowed from the comic strip Dilbert. See J.Schuessler, “Philosophy That Stirs the Waters,” New York Times (29 April 2013), available online at URL = <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/30/books/daniel-dennett-author-of-intuition-pumps-and-other-tools-for-thinking.html>.
[xviii] See, e.g., G. Nicolis and I. Prigogine, Self-Organization in Nonequilibrium Systems (New York: Wiley, 1977); I. Prigogine and E. Stengers, Order Out of Chaos (New York: Bantam, 1984); and Prigogine, The End of Certainty.
[xix] See, e.g., F. Varela, H. Maturana, and R. Uribe, “Autopoiesis: the Organization of Living Systems, its Characterization and a Model,” Currents in Modern Biology 5 (1974): 187–196; and F. Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy (New York: Elsevier/North Holland, 1979).
[xx] Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, p. 17.
[xxi] Nagel, Mind and Cosmos,p. 123.
[xxii] See also R. Hanna, “The Point Is To Shape The World: A Worldview In Twenty Theses,” (Unpublished MS, 2021), available online HERE.
[xxiii] See R. Hanna and M. Maiese, Embodied Minds in Action (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), also available online in preview at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/21620839/Embodied_Minds_in_Action>.
[xxv] See M. Maiese and R. Hanna, The Mind-Body Politic (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), ch. 1, also available online in preview HERE; and also R. Hanna, “Our Sociable Sociality: A Postscript to The Mind-Body Politic,” Borderless Philosophy 4 (2021): 57–96, available online at URL = <https://www.cckp.space/single-post/bp4-2021-robert-hanna-our-sociable-sociality-a-postscript-to-the-mind-body-politic>.
[xxvi] Maiese and Hanna, The Mind-Body Politic, ch. 2.
[xxvii] Ibid., esp. chs. 2–3 and 6–8.
[xxix] Ibid; see also R. Hanna, Kant, Agnosticism and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, vol.4) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), esp. parts 2–3, also available online in preview HERE.
[xxx] See R. Hanna and O. Paans, “Thought-Shapers,” Cosmos and History 17 (2021): 1–72, available online at URL = <http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/923>.
[xxxi] See M. Maiese at al., “The Shape of Lives to Come,” Frontiers in Psychology Research Topics (2021): in progress, available online in preview at URL = <https://www.frontiersin.org/research-topics/25439/the-shape-of-lives-to-come>.
[xxxii] See R. Hanna, “The Organicist Conception of the World: A Manifesto,” (Unpublished MS, 2020), available online HERE; R. Hanna and O. Paans, “This is the Way the World Ends: A Philosophy of Civilization Since 1900, and A Philosophy of the Future” (co-authored with Otto Paans), Cosmos and History 16, 2 (2020): 1–53, available online at URL = <http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/viewFile/865/1510>; and J. Torday, W.B. Miller Jr, and R. Hanna, “Singularity, Life, and Mind: New Wave Organicism,” in J. Torday and W.B. Miller Jr, The Singularity of Nature (Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2020), ch. 20, pp. 206–246.
[xxxiii] See Hanna and Maiese, Embodied Minds in Action.
[xxxiv] See R. Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 2)(New York: Nova Science, 2018), also available online in preview HERE, esp. chs. 1–5.
[xxxv] See Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics, esp. chs. 6–7.
[xxxvi] See R. Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 5) (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), also available online in preview HERE.
[xxxvii] See R. Hanna, Rationality and Logic (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), also available online in preview HERE; R. Hanna, “Rationality and the Ethics of Logic,” Journal of Philosophy 103 (2006): 67–100, also available online in preview HERE; and Hanna, Cognition, Content and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 5), ch. 5.
[xxxviii] See R. Hanna, “A Theory of Human Dignity,” (Unpublished MS), available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/44826196/A_Theory_of_Human_Dignity_June_2021_version_>.
[xxxix] By “nonideal” in this context, I mean “far from optimal or wholly perfect.” Something can be nonideal in this sense — indeed, even thoroughly nonideal — and also be (i) necessarily connected with the human mind and (ii) saliently even if not wholly perfectible: e.g., human free agency, human knowledge, the natural world, and human social institutions.
[xl] See R. Hanna, Kantian Ethics and Human Existence: A Study in Moral Philosophy (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 3) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), also available online in preview HERE.
[xli] See R. Hanna, “Can Physics Explain Physics? Anthropic Principles and Transcendental Idealism,” in L. Caranti (ed.), Kant and The Problem of Knowledge in the Contemporary World (London: Routledge, 2021), also available online in preview HERE; and R. Hanna, “The Incredible Shrinking Thinking Man, Or, Cosmic Dignitarianism,” (Unpublished MS, 2021), available online HERE.
[xlii] See R. Hanna, “Radical Enlightenment: Existential Kantian Cosmopolitan Anarchism, With a Concluding Quasi-Federalist Postscript,” in D. Heidemann and K. Stoppenbrink (eds.), Join, Or Die: Philosophical Foundations of Federalism (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), pp. 63–90, also available online in preview HERE; R. Hanna, “Exiting the State and Debunking the State of Nature,” Con-Textos Kantianos 5 (2017), available online at URL = <https://www.con-textoskantianos.net/index.php/revista/article/view/228>; Hanna, Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 4); and R. Hanna, “On Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: Optimism For Realists, Or, Neither Hobbes Nor Rousseau,” (Unpublished MS, 2020), available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/43631182/On_Rutger_Bregmans_Humankind_Minor_revisions_22_September_2020_>.
[xliii] See R. Hanna, “How To Save The World In Four Days,” (Unpublished MS, 2021), available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/50221845/How_To_Save_The_World_In_Four_Days_October_2021_version_>.
[xliv] I’m grateful to my father, Alan Hanna, for inviting me to do a book-discussion-group presentation on Mind and Cosmos during Spring 2013, a very interesting and pleasant occasion that yielded the earliest version of this little essay.
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