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Karl Smith Sends Us to Simon Blackburn on Thomas Nagel on Materialism

Simon Blackburn: Nagel’s central idea is that there are things that science, as it is presently conceived, cannot possibly explain. The current conception is that, given a purely physical beginning, everything else – chemistry, biology, life, mind, consciousness, intelligence, values, understandings, even science – follows on by natural processes. Particles beget atoms beget molecules beget enzymes beget proteins beget life begets Homo sapiens who begets the Royal Society and the rules of tennis. We do not understand every step in this process, naturally, but we can be reasonably confident of its overall shape and confident, too, that any remaining gaps that can be closed will be closed only by more understanding of the same broad kind that we already have….


Karl Smith: I hesitate to contradict Simon Blackburn, but I am not sure his description of the “current conception” does it justice.

It might be true that the typical scientist goes about her work with the vague conception that there is nothing which cannot be reduced to atoms. However, even among rationalists who style themselves as hardcore reductionists – and I am thinking of myself here – there is admission of the “hard problem” problem. There is no known way to get consciousness existence out of material laws and no promising avenue of explanation. I am not sure I buy the full “hard problem” thesis that there definitely no way of getting from here to there. However, there is little denying that if there is a way, we have no idea what it is…. This part from Blackburn’s review is particularly alluring:

The idea is of a “natural teleology”: the world has taken the course it has partly because it is tugged forwards to a higher state:

[T]he natural world would have a propensity to give rise to beings of the kind that have a good – beings for which things can be good or bad.

While he acknowledges that such beings have appeared through the natural process of evolution, Nagel nevertheless holds that “[p]art of the explanation of that process and the possibilities on which natural selection operates would be that they bring value into the world, in a great variety of forms”. The golden future beckons and the world has responded and goes on doing so…. [T]he world targets itself on this emergence all by itself…

How we would know this I have no idea and I salivating over hearing how Nagel thinks he knows it. The obvious – and surely addressed – retort is that in a world in which “beings” or some other complex chemical process created symbols relating to a three-fold fundamental nature of gad, bood, goad, (as opposed to two-fold good and bad) would it also seem to them as if everything had been building towards the great trinity of meaning.

And if so, how would they know if they were wrong?