Can Odd Monisms Ruin Nagel’s Book? (4,3,6)

by Asher Kay

Yeah, that’s right — I used a cryptic crossword clue as a post title. I was going to go with “Something It Is Like To Be Bemused And a Little Relieved”, but that sounded too much like David Foster Wallace.

If you have solved my clue/title, you’ll know that this post is about Thomas Nagel’s newest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

The first thing likely to grab your attention is the subtitle, which might seem ever so slightly strident if you were not aware that shortly before publication, he toned it down from, “Come At Me, You Worthless Reductionist Pissants”. Happily, the book’s content does not reflect the vociferousness of the subtitle — it’s actually a pretty humble and friendly book. Nagel, in fact, doesn’t even explicitly say that Darwinism is false. He says that “psychophysical reductionism” is false, and by “psychophysical reductionism”, he seems to mean an array of things, some of which will strike the physicalist as strawmen (such as the idea that everything can be reduced to physics), and some of which will just seem a bit tone deaf (like the “reducibility of the mental to the physical”, which doesn’t really involve a reduction, per se, for someone who holds that everything is physical).

One could spend an entire post poking holes in Nagel’s conception of the physicalist stance (see Leiter and Weisberg’s recent review in The Nation if you already had your hole-poker out), but it’s a big topic, and I think it makes more sense to lay out a positive description of physicalism and show how some of Nagel’s objections look in light of that than it does to discuss it from the negative viewpoint of refuting someone. I’ll try to do a post on that soon.

What I want to discuss here are the several of things that puzzled me about Mind and Cosmos. The first is Nagel’s conception of “value realism” (he also calls it “moral realism” in some places). The basic idea of value realism, for Nagel, is that the truths indicated by value and moral judgements are truths that are not dependent on anything else — they are true in themselves:

Realism is not a metaphysical theory of the ground of moral and evaluative truth. It is a metaphysical position only in the negative sense that it denies that all basic truth is either natural or mathematical. It is metaphysical only if the denial of a metaphysical position like naturalism itself counts as a metaphysical position. But value realism does not maintain that value judgments are made true or false by anything else, natural or supernatural.

Of course natural facts are what make some value judgments true, in the sense that they are the facts that provide reasons for and against action. In that sense the fact that you will run over a dog if you don’t step on the brakes makes it the case that you should step on the brakes. But the general moral truth that licenses this inference — namely that it counts in favor of doing something that it will avoid grievous harm to a sentient creature — is not made true by any fact of any other kind. It is nothing but itself.

For me, this view runs into two problems. The first is the question of how we are able to access these truths. Nagel doesn’t address this issue directly, and my sense is that he would not see it as a problem at all. He seems to be saying that we have access to them in the same way we have access to mathematical truths, but I don’t see how that makes the question any easier since we don’t have an explanation of how we access those either. Since the point of the book is to push for non-physicalist theories of mental processes, I am guessing that those theories are where Nagel would expect the question to be addressed.

The second problem is the weird duality of pleasure and pain. If, as Nagel says, “pain is really bad, and not just something we hate, and that pleasure is really good, and not just something we like”; and if the good and bad of pleasure and pain are not dependent on anything else (our like/dislike, their physical manifestations, the evolutionary consequences of our reactions to them, etc.); then we seem to have an awfully big coincidence going on:

Describing it is tricky, since it is obvious that biologically hard-wired pleasure and pain play a vital role in the fitness of conscious creatures even if their objective value doesn’t. The realist position must be that these experiences which have desire and aversion as part of their essence also have positive and negative value in themselves, and that this is evident to us on reflection, even though it is not a necessary part of the evolutionary explanation of why they are associated with certain bodily episodes, such as sex, eating, or injury. They are adaptive, but they are something more than that. While they are not the only things that have objective value, these experiences are among the most conspicuous phenomena by which value enters the universe, and the clearest examples through which we become acquainted with real value.

In the realist interpretation, pleasure and pain have a double nature. In virtue of the attraction and aversion that is essential to them, they play a vital role in survival and fitness, and their association with specific biological functions and malfunctions can be explained by natural selection. But for beings like ourselves, capable of practical reason, they are also objects of reflective consciousness, beginning with the judgment that pleasure and pain are good and bad in themselves and leading on, along with other values, to more systematic and elaborate recognition of reasons for action and principles governing their combination and interaction, and ultimately to moral principles.

Remember that for Nagel, there’s nothing metaphysical going on — no “root cause” that leads both to the truth that pain is bad and to our visceral aversion to it. As Nagel appears to recognize, this leads us toward a sort of dualism. I’d go further and say that it’s the same sort of dualism that gets us in trouble when we accept the mind/body problem as a real problem. Nagel also recognizes that his conclusion relies heavily on intuition: “That is just how they glaringly seem to me, however hard I try to imagine the contrary, and I suspect the same is true of most people”. Mind and Cosmos is refreshingly honest when it comes to intuition.

Okay, so that’s the value realism thing. The other puzzling thing for me was Nagel’s conclusion that an evolutionary account of reason is impossible because it is necessarily circular:

By contrast [to the case of perception], in a case of reasoning, if it is basic enough, the only thing to think is that I have grasped the truth directly. I cannot pull back from a logical inference and reconfirm it with the reflection that the reliability of my logical thought processes is consistent with the hypothesis that evolution has selected them for accuracy. That would drastically weaken the logical claim. Furthermore, in the formulation of that explanation, as in the parallel explanation of the reliability of the senses, logical judgments of consistency and inconsistency have to occur without these qualifications, as direct apprehensions of the truth. It is not possible to think, ‘Reliance on my reason, including my reliance on this very judgment, is reasonable because it is consistent with its having an evolutionary explanation.’ Therefore any evolutionary account of the place of reason presupposes reason’s validity and cannot confirm it without circularity.

My first intuitive response was to think that Nagel was going a little easy on perception. Isn’t an evolutionary theory of perception open to the same problem, since we are relying on our perceptions (empirical measurements through scientific instruments) to determine the validity of our theories? Or if we have ways of “checking” our perceptions to make sure they’re valid, wouldn’t the same kind of checking apply to our reasoning process?

I’m reminded of the refutation of moral relativism based on the idea that it makes an absolute claim (i.e., “no moral truths are absolute”). It feels like a trick — that it’s only circular because it’s “about” reason. Plus, as with value realism, this sort of rejection forces us into a position of turning reason into another “true in itself” thing that doesn’t require justification.

It seems to me that reasoning is something way less cool than Nagel makes it out to be. If I perform a reasoning task that takes me from proposition A to proposition Q, all I can say is that proposition Q follows from the procedural rules that I’ve set out. If proposition A is based on a perception of the world, and proposition Q also accords with a perception of the world, I can say that my procedure was successful in producing an inference about the world. Further tests might show that the procedure is wildly successful in producing a bunch of successful inferences about a bunch of things in the world. So when I’m “presupposing” reason when I theorize about reason’s awesomeness, all I’m really doing is saying that my confidence is high because the procedure I followed tends to be highly successful in making inferences about that kind of thing.

It’s really easy (for me, at least) to imagine this as a sort of algorithm-generating process that continuously takes A-propositions from perceptions, runs them through sets of rules, then tests the resulting Q-propositions against perceptions. Those algorithms that result in high “accordance” rates get weighted up and preferentially used. Those that don’t get weighted down and eventually wither away. If such a process occurs unconsciously and is repeated over years and years, even at early stages of an organism’s life, the adult organism would probably end up intuiting that the successful algorithms are “just true in themselves”. And if the external environment is perceptually consistent enough – if there is, in philosophical parlance, a metaphysical basis for the concordance between inferences and perceptions – those algorithms are going to be both easily discovered and widely applicable, given the right kind of hardware.

UPDATE: A recent review of Mind and Cosmos from John Dupré at Exeter contains a wonderful summary of the physicalist stance:

So here is the first problem. Reductionism can be understood as a metaphysical thesis, typically based on an argument that if there is only material stuff in the world (no spooky stuff), then the properties of stuff must ultimately explain everything. This is a controversial thesis, much debated by philosophers. But what the last 50 years of work in the philosophy of science has established is that this kind of reductionism has little relevance to science. Even if it turned out that most scientists believed something like this (which I find incredible) this would be a psychological oddity, not a deep insight about science. A more sensible materialism goes no further than the rejection of spooky stuff: whatever kinds of stuff there may turn out to be and whatever they turn out to do, they are, as long as this turning out is empirically grounded, ipso facto not spooky. Such a materialism is quite untouched by Nagel’s arguments.

I think critics of physicalism find this sort of stance to be extremely frustrating. If physical = non-spooky, then it could be said that everything we have a coherent theory of is physical, and that everything that seems spooky now will eventually be considered physical when we have a coherent theory of it. The only way for a critic to keep something permanently non-physical is to argue that no coherent scientific theory of it is possible (which is kind of what Nagel is trying to do with subjective experience and value judgements).

3 Comments to “Can Odd Monisms Ruin Nagel’s Book? (4,3,6)”

  1. Asher, I see nothing to disagree with in what you have written here. Haven’t read Nagel and likely won’t get around to it. There’s a whole bunch of stuff higher in my ought-to-read-that stack. Based on your description, however, I see Nagel as another wannabe Kantian, leaping blithely from you have to make assumptions to build an argument to these are the assumptions you have to make and arguing further than something along the lines of transcendental arguments guarantee that the author’s assumptions about the assumptions you have to make are the right ones. The whole thing collapses when a modest, engineering-minded fellow, says “Sure, we need some assumptions about the way that things like time, space, causality, the good, the true, and the beautiful work. But that doesn’t make any one of set of assumptions God’s Truth. The history of science is largely the history of people tweaking assumptions and coming up with ideas that work a little better than the last set.” Thus, for example, you can navigate with Ptolemy, not much better with Copernicus, quite a bit better with Kepler, and have a pretty good idea about how things work with Newton. Then Einstein comes along and that stuff you learned from Euclid about space-time geometries needs rethinking to fit new observations….” If it’s morals and politics that you want to argue about, consider Charles Taylor. Sure we need a moral horizon: we need to make assumptions about what we owe to others, what we owe to ourselves, and what a good life consists of. But those have changed over time, too. Dying young in a blaze of glory after slaughtering lots of enemies may have been catnip to Achilles. Not so much to a modern day capitalist pig or client in search of therapy. Again, it is twisting, tweaking or replacing assumptions that changes the way we see things. The argument that some assumptions are needed implies my assumptions are essential. Give us a break.

  2. I’m interested in this moral dualism of Nagel’s that you quote, Asher:

    “The realist position must be that these experiences which have desire and aversion as part of their essence also have positive and negative value in themselves, and that this is evident to us on reflection… are also objects of reflective consciousness, beginning with the judgment that pleasure and pain are good and bad in themselves… But for beings like ourselves, capable of practical reason, they are also objects of reflective consciousness, beginning with the judgment that pleasure and pain are good and bad in themselves and leading on, along with other values, to more systematic and elaborate recognition of reasons for action and principles governing their combination and interaction, and ultimately to moral principles.”

    Is Nagel’s rationale based on his argument that consciousness is essentially the phenomenal experience of “what it’s like to be human”? Since we’re all human, we all know what it’s like not just to feel pain and pleasure but also to reflect on these feelings with reason and judgment. Because first-person subjectivity cannot be “subjected” to third-person scrutiny, the reality of pleasure-and-pain-based morality cannot be evaluated on objective grounds like science or evolution or even philosophy. This is all from second-hand sources, mind you: I’ve not actually read Nagel. So for Nagel a system of morality has to expand from the inside out, from personal experience, feelings, reflections. I’d guess that the transcendent reality of reason is grounded similarly in what it’s like to be a sapient human being. Presumably dogs feel pleasure and pain but they can’t reason about these experiences. So for Nagel is it okay for a human to hurt a dog, or is it enough to know that the dog feels pain in order to deem dog-hurting a real immorality?

    John M — you thought highly of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology. Bogost predicates much of that book on Nagel’s idea of “what it’s like to be” something other than human: a bat for Nagel, cornmeal for Bogost. What’s it like for cornmeal to be eaten? Are we so sure that it doesn’t feel something like pain in its being eaten? What if it derives some sort of mushy pleasure from becoming the nourishment for another living being?

    Nagel seems to be proposing a universal morality, but he’s building it from inside individual human subjectivity. What is it like to be a group or a society or an entire species? From the inside, what are the collective equivalents to pleasure and pain on which to build a collective morality? If you’re going for a universal morality, shouldn’t the subjective collective POV of all human trump the subjective POVs of individual humans?

  3. “Because first-person subjectivity cannot be ‘subjected’ to third-person scrutiny, the reality of pleasure-and-pain-based morality cannot be evaluated on objective grounds like science or evolution or even philosophy.”

    He does not appear to be arguing from this basis, but you could say that it’s this kind of view on the “special-ness” of consciousness that forces one into taking the odd stances he does — that moral truths are “just true”, and that simple reflection (whatever that is) makes them evident to us. It seems kind of ironic that the more radical one is about subjectivity, the more tempted one will be to posit direct objective access in matters of reason or values.

    He does argue directly in the book that moral truths will be different based on the “form” of the organism:

    If value is tied to life, its content will depend on particular forms of life, and the most salient reasons it gives us will depend, even in a realist conception, on our own form of life. This is how a realist account can accommodate one of the things that make subjectivism seem most plausible, namely the fact that what we find self-evidently valuable is overwhelmingly contingent on the biological specifics of our form of life. Human good and bad depend in the first instance on our natural appetites, emotions, capacities, and interpersonal bonds. If we were more like bees or lions, what seems good to us would be very different

    Keep in mind that the contingency mentioned here is not the same as positing a biological/formal contingency for our judgments of moral truths. The more I think about it, the more tricky this seems to me.

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