The reasons for reason

Gene Callahan is going back and forth with economist Brad DeLong about philosopher Thomas Nagel’s recent book in which Nagel argues (or so I gather–I haven’t read it) that a strictly materialist understanding of evolution is insufficient to account for the human mind’s ability to understand reality.

While I haven’t read Nagel’s most recent book, I have read his The Last Word, and it seems that he’s developing the argument he made in that earlier work, particularly the last chapter. Gene is certainly right that Nagel is a philosopher of the first rank, and anyone who dismisses him as “dumb” is being dumb himself. (Though, again, I can’t vouch for his most recent work.)

Nagel’s argument–or arguments similar to it–has a long pedigree in the history of philosophy, arguably going all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. There has always been something seemingly mysterious about the fact that the human mind is able to understand reality. More specifically, that it can–apparently–understand at least parts of the “deep structure” of the physical world, such as the laws that govern its behavior. And that these laws themselves can be expressed in mathematical form. We might put the mystery this way: How can a trait emerging from a “jumped-up primate” (to use DeLong’s expression) have the kind of universal validity that we claim for reason?

These kinds of considerations have led many philosophers to conclude that there must be some deep affinity between the human mind and the cosmos. One variation of this conclusion is that the human mind reflects, albeit in a limited way, the mind of God and that this is why our reason is able to uncover, to some extent, the rational order of the universe.

By contrast, on the supposition that our rational faculties were formed solely by the blind evolutionary pressure to survive, it’s hard to see why we should expect that they would be capable of unlocking the secrets of the universe. I say, “it’s hard to see” not “it’s impossible to see” because I’ve always been uncertain just how much these considerations actually show, rather than being somewhat suggestive. In my view, a deflationary, “Humean” account of reason is inconsistent with the truth-claims usually made on behalf of science (particularly by good secular liberals); but that doesn’t mean that a more robust, yet still naturalistic, account of reason isn’t possible.


16 thoughts on “The reasons for reason

  1. The argument seems to hinge on there being something inherently not-naturally-knowable about the structure of the universe. Which is not what we find in the natural sciences. Also, it presumes that we genuinely do understand the structure of the universe. Which is not what we claim in the natural sciences. All we do, is build models based on observation and test them against observations. When they work, we build on them. What’s so unnatural about that?

  2. But don’t natural scientists–many of them, anyway–think that those models track the structure of the world “out there”? I mean, I understand that one can interpret them “pragmatically” so to speak, but I’m not sure that’s the most prevalent way of thinking about them, is it? At least the way it’s presented in popular discourse, science purports to be increasing our understanding of an objectively existing world. (I’m personally not necessarily averse to a more pragmatist interpretation, but I think it’s a somewhat revisionist one.)

    Regarding your first point, I think it’s more the weirdness of the thought that a “jumped-up primate” would have access to the structure of the universe via cognitive faculties that were developed primarily for survival on the savannah.

    1. Lee, of course, modern science believes that it observes and models reality. We don’t posit anything imaginary about what we’re describing—but we also don’t posit anything absolute about the models we use. PR is always more “certain” than the science itself, and sure, some scientists with “names” read their own PR too much, but the claim that the models track with the actual universe is a) a much weaker claim (correspondence), and b) exactly and entirely the point of natural science. I see nothing “revisionist” about my description at all. It differs from popular understanding, sure, but not from the science I know is going on in the field.

      And it’s been noted below that “jumped-up primate” is a way of reductively animalizing the human being—which leans so heavily on 18th and 19th-century concepts of what separates Man from the baser animals. Which has basically fallen apart since then, except in philosophy. Most of genus pan is pretty “jumped-up” as it is, and only ideologically separable from genus homo. For that matter, a wide variety of other genera in the animal kingdom are similarly “jumped-up.” None of them have developed exactly as we have, or as far down the particular direction of brain development as we have, in any ways we can readily demonstrate, but there really is very little fact supporting the idea that humans are seriously different from the rest of the animal kingdom of which they are a part. We are not qualitatively different, only quantitatively, and only in some measures.

      And, after all, what is simple about “survival on the savannah”? Observation and modeling as problem-solving tools are as essential to survival as they are to the curiosity we get up to when we have survival secured for a time.

      1. The “pragmatic” weakening of the claim I was making is not about the reality of what we understand, but about the claim, tout court, to understand it. The philosophical idea that such an understanding is intuitive, and the result of correspondence between our mind and the universe, is exactly the wrong kind of correspondence, and makes a too-strong claim for our “understanding” of reality. The correspondence is between the models and reality, and we can be said to understand only to the extent that we can make sensible pictures out of the data and have those pictures work as accurate pictures in both a descriptive and a predictive sense.

      2. I wonder what you mean, Mr. Frost, by the assertion that the separation of “Man from baser animals” has “fallen apart… except in philosophy.” Clearly in daily experience the separation remains prevalent and reflexive, while in philosophy the critique of humanism is well advanced. In my own reading and experience, I see a different character to the differences between common understandings, philosophical treatments of the question of the human, and natural scientific explanations.

  3. I think Hegel’s point can be put this way (taking the unavoidable risk of oversimplifying): Human subjectivity is not observation of a universe separately “out there.” It is the internalization of whatever is and nothing else, within whatever is and of whatever is. Another way of saying the same thing is that the universe is (among other things, or next to other ways of putting the same and similar things) the observation of itself. So, I hope without overdoing it, the “jumped-up primate” and anything she might observe only ever exist within a relation that develops according to the laws of the same universal laws that structure all relationships to and within the savannah, including survival on the savannah. The savannah betrays the same “structure of the universe” as any other observable phenomenon. “Jumped-up primate” seems to be a way of imagining the human as animal, or reducing the human to a relatively empty, static or non-developing faculty under “jumped-up”-ness, when what’s human about the primate is precisely and no more or less than its self-developing consciousness in relation to the (same) universe where- and however it’s encountered, and those encounters are a product of and imply and are part of the same structure, and so on.

  4. To say that I’m not very familiar with Hegel would be a grand understatement, but if I’m reading you rightly (along with other stuff I’ve read about him), isn’t his view that there is a universal Reason that is present both in the universe and in human beings? And if so, isn’t this essentially a variation on the view I described above that there is a “deep affinity between the human mind and the cosmos”? Just trying to get clear here.

    1. Yes and no: Not an affinity, a term which preserves a simple dualism or dichotomy, but identity, or unity and interpenetration within a complex dual (or dialectical) movement. We can instead conceived of Cosmos and Mind as inseparable, two sides of the coin. It we conceive of them as opposites, or impossibly as two poles, then we still never find find ourselves all at one or all at the other, or never locate one or the other alone. We can imagine the cosmos as “mere being,” without mind, or mind without being, as a potential prior to any particularization in an existent, but “mere being,” existence without mind, and “mere mind,” mind without substance, are equally mere suppositions, never actually encountered – “actually” always implying actuality, “encountered” always implying a mind that encounters.

      What we mean by “human,” in this context, is not merely the name of a species, nor even the biophysical faculties that, we suppose but cannot actually know, allow for thinking. The human is also the possibility of such abstraction as the naming of species or the description of biophysical faculties, what we define the merely animal as not doing. So the dialectical observation of the observer viewing the jumped-up primate is of the scientist who artificially separates herself from the observed – the first motion of natural science – then comically expresses shock upon catching her reflection, or the reflection of that motion, in her subsequent observation: like a child playing peek-a-boo.

      I highly recommend that you read the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. As Hegel goes, it’s highly readable – even entertaining – and quite compact. It can be found printed separately, but you might as well get the whole book to adorn your bookshelf even if you put off struggling with the whole darn thing. It may also make you want to pick up Parmenides (praised and obviously exploited by Hegel in the development of his distinctive logic), either the fragments or Plato’s dialogue, both because it’s useful, and because it’s fun: “For to be aware and to be are the same.”

  5. Thanks for these excellent comments.

    To Matt Frost: I’m definitely on board with the blurring the lines between humans and other animals, as you describe. And your distinction between minds and models is helpful. So to me an interesting question, then, is to what extent are those models built out of materials furnished by the human mind–as opposed to being read off of reality–and to the extent they are, do we have good assurance that the results would tend to correspond with reality? To take what is, I think, an obvious example: logic and mathematics are indispensable in formulating our understandings of reality, but they aren’t in any straightforward sense derived from experience. So what reason do we have to think that they are good tools, truth-wise? This is sort of Kant vs. Hume stuff, I guess. Maybe there is no a priori assurance to be had, though, and the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so to speak?

    To CK: I’ve long suspected (feared?) that I’d have to get around to reading Hegel eventually. Thanks(?) for the encouragement.

  6. Not to step on Matt’s toes in responding, but it’s probably unwise to generalize too much about what “philosophy” thinks about the distinction between humans and non-humans. That said, there is still, in my limited experience, a certain “angelism” prevalent in philosophy (not to mention theology!), but how that compares to other disciplines I couldn’t really say.

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  8. Daniel McCarthy

    I’d better read Nagel because my response was much like Matt Frost’s: the argument only seemed to make sense if it was attacking a straw man. What’s so shocking about a smart ape creating ever more elaborate myths to fit the sum of his empirical data together with the outputs entailed in the rules of games like logic and mathematics? At what point is this ape supposed to have arrived at transcendent knowledge? Our knowledge of the celestial spheres certainly was not transcendent.

    We’re able to come to some consensus on our myths and modes of organizing ideas by agreeing to labor-saving conventions such as “the simplest explanation with the fewest inexplicable elements is best,” but such consensus is not necessarily an indication that we’ve hit upon transcendent truth. Notably, the farther away even the smartest humans get from the more straightforward operations of logic and tests of evidence (such as: does the plane crash?), the harder it becomes for us to arrive at the same conclusions, at least without some authority to guide us by means other than pure reason.

    (The idea that the laws of the natural world can be expressed by mathematics, by the way, seems not much different from the idea that, say, a tree can be depicted in a painting. The tree in the painting is an abstraction; its not a “real” tree. Similarly, the laws of physics, helpful though they are, are abstractions and not raw transcendent realities, they’re very good approximations. But getting beyond approximation to perfect representation is something I’m not convinced humans have achieved — or could achieve, since wouldn’t a perfect representation have to be identical to the thing itself?)

  9. Daniel McCarthy

    This review by Elliott Sober makes it clear I was barking up the wrong tree: it’s the incompatibility, as Nagel sees it, of moral realism with evolutionary theory that causes him to look for something more than conventional scientific naturalism. If the unlikelihood of the mind developing in such a way that it can apprehend other deep truths plays a role in Nagel’s argument, it seems to be a lesser one than the unlikelihood of the blind evolutionary mind’s apprehension of moral truth — Sober makes only a fleeting mention of the former.

  10. Hey Dan, thanks for commenting. I think Nagel (from what I’ve read–again, I haven’t read his newest book) is concerned about a number of things: consciousness (the “what-it’s-like”-ness of experience), our ability to know truths about the world, and moral truths among them. This (quite critical) review, at least, suggests that “consciousness, cognition, and value” are the things Nagel thinks “materialism” can’t account for:

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