When the Opposites Are False, the Middle Ground is Empty Space, Research Time, 24/07/2013

Being the first person since possibly Mrs Nagel to give Thomas Nagel the benefit of (so very many of) the doubts on his new book has had fascinating results already. I don’t think he’s anywhere near right, but in this case a ridiculous falsehood offers intriguing possibilities for thinking. 

Now that I’ve actually started reading Nagel’s book instead of just reading accounts of people disgusted with it, I have a much better sense of his thought process going into it. In other words, I think I see what it would look like if Nagel wrote a History Boy post about his own book. In many ways, he’s working from a conception of philosophy that no longer holds, at least from my point of view. But this conception is actually remarkably popular, because most of the philosophical work that has taken this down has gone largely unnoticed by the general population of North America (at least, but I’d say of Earth if I had easy access to those kinds of surveys), and unnoticed in pretty large pluralities of the philosophical community as well. 

First, as far as Nagel is concerned, Mind and Cosmos isn’t a book about evolutionary theory or philosophy of biology, but about philosophy of mind. It’s an extension of the same line of thought that produced “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” For Nagel, the mind — our experiences of pains and pleasures, our consciousness and non-propositional thinking — cannot be reduced to physical phenomena without losing content. There is content to thought that is non-reducible to movements of matter, and we experience it intuitively.* And since evolutionary biology is all about the movements of organic matter as it changes through the dynamics of its ecological relationships, this scientific discipline is hit with the same critique as all the others: reductivism.

* Yeah, you can probably see where I’m going with this.

His goal is to find a middle ground between the kind of thinking that makes mind the foundation of material, and the kind that reduces the mind to the material. In this specific regard, the two perspectives that he called theism and materialism are close to opposites. And he thinks philosophy hasn’t really come up with a middle ground. I have two problems with this.

There are few in the history of philosophy who
fascinate and frustrate me more than Henri Bergson.
Problem number one is that Nagel isn’t doing new work on this problem. Henri Bergson theorized this opposition in depth, developed a detailed middle ground that constituted a metaphysical philosophy more comprehensive than that of damn near every philosopher that has tackled this before or since his career, and he did it all more than 100 years ago! Bergson was especially advanced in building a detailed account of how consciousness worked, which was the entire point of his greatest book, Matter and Memory. All Nagel can do, meanwhile, is appeal to the “obvious” appearance of consciousness in experience. But consciousness is still a simple entity to him. If Nagel were to take Matter and Memory as seriously as I’m taking Mind and Cosmos right now, he’d find more than an interesting book. He’d find an intellectual predecessor who has already surpassed him in many important ways!

What prevents this is that Bergson’s reputation collapsed after his fights with Einstein in the 1920s and once Bertrand Russell was convinced that Bergson was an obscurantist, mystic-minded twat (never mind that Russell’s technical work was so dense as to be his most difficult material and Bergson wrote so clearly that he was a pop-philosophical superstar decades before Russell became one). So no one ever read him again except Gilles Deleuze and the people who followed him. And no one in analytic philosophy ever reads Gilles Deleuze. So Nagel would not be expected to have read Bergson. I was impressed to find a Bergson footnote, though that’s the only mention of him in the book, and I doubt Nagel has read his works in any detail. The footnote offers a very over-simplified account of his concept of vital force.

My problem with Nagel number two. Ultimately, I think Nagel’s project in this book is misdirected because he takes the subject matter of materialism to be divided into an opposition that’s false. His goal is to find a middle ground where there is no between to discover. Nagel still believes, along with popular culture, that mind and matter are incompatible, and that science functions by reducing phenomena to the movements of matter. I think the ontology of the future isn’t just a non-reductive materialism, but an emergent materialism, where the structures and movements of matter at a micro-level constitute wholly new entities with wholly new laws of behaviour at its progressive macro-levels. 

That doesn’t fit Nagel’s narrative of two opposing camps through which one must find a middle ground or productive compromise. But I’m not interested in fitting into his or anyone else’s narratives. I want to make my own.

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