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July 15, 2016 / compassioninpolitics

Thomas Nagel on Materialism


Materialism, then, is fine as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go as far as materialists want it to. It is a premise of science, not a finding. Scientists do their work by assuming that every phenomenon can be reduced to a material, mechanistic cause and by excluding any possibility of nonmaterial explanations. And the materialist assumption works really, really well—in detecting and quantifying things that have a material or mechanistic explanation. Materialism has allowed us to predict and control what happens in nature with astonishing success. The jaw-dropping edifice of modern science, from space probes to nanosurgery, is the result.

But the success has gone to the materialists’ heads. From a fruitful method, materialism becomes an axiom: If science can’t quantify something, it doesn’t exist, and so the subjective, unquantifiable, immaterial “manifest image” of our mental life is proved to be an illusion.

The Core Ethical Project of Thomas Nagel:
Nagel, though doesn’t address the initial problem with deducing ethics from the constructs of biology. We need something more than biology to determine what is possible for human beings and how they should ideally behave. At a minimum, biology (in the context of the human experience and the human spirit) can perhaps deduce, infer, and inform an ethical system deduced from human rationality–but as David Hume postulated ever so many years ago–you can’t deduce an ought from an is. Although, to be fair, looking at perceived or implied essences (and telos) is certainly one way to attempt to bridge this gap in a semi-contructive way. I think any such application has to be wary.

Although Nagel defends a theory of telos that is so strong that it is akin to destiny (or God-like force or God). Nagel is apt to point out the multiple holes in the materialist perspective on human choice and ethics. He sees it lacking an account of intentionality, subjectivity, and decision-processes that individuals go through as they reason about their lives and their world.

“The tendency for life to form may be a basic feature of the natural order, not explained by the nonteleological laws of physics and chemistry.”

Nagel even goes further:

“The universe has become not only conscious and aware of itself but capable in some respects of choosing its path into the future–through all three, the conscious, the knowledge, and the choice, are dispersed over a vast crowd of beings, acting individually and collectively.”

I think Nagel must be thinking of something like the Force from Star Wars, but its beginning to sound a lot like God just wrapped in more human-centric on the one hand…..or abstraction (and miracle or magic) on the other.

In terms of his reasoning around ethics:

“Value enters the world with life, and the capacity to recognize and be influence by value in its larger extension appears with higher forms of life. Therefore the historical explanation of life must include an explanation of value, just as it must include an explanation of consciousness.”

This quote from Nagel seems especially odd and perhaps a little obtuse:
” It is difficult to imagine what form of psychophysical monism could make possible a reductive historical explanation of the origin of life, the development of conscious life, and the appearance of practical reason that would make it anything other than a complete accident that we care about has objective value.”

Nagel is an atheist, but admits the problems intrinsic to our conceptions of science as defined by materialism.

Resources:
Naturalistic Fallacy (Is versus Ought)
Moral Non-naturalism (link)

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