Hitting Nagel on the head

H. Allen Orr slices open the latest book from Thomas Nagel over at NYRB. Neither the book, or Nagel’s worldview, comes out of it looking particularly pretty. Orr is admirably polite, but it must be so tiresome for a reviewer to see such a grandiose title: “ Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False” and then to realise that a core argument is “I can’t get my head round evolution so it’s probably wrong”.  Who publishes this stuff? I guess, some other folks who  haven’t gotten around to reading Steve Jones and Dawkins yet?

I haven’t read the book, and given the review, I’m not sure that I will. But I’d like to briefly touch on two of the key points, as revealed by Orr: 1) not getting evolution, 2) not getting the brain.

Evolution is unlikely. There are plenty of paperback books that lay out evolution. As a scientist, but one who didn’t study biology, I don’t find the arguments that hard to follow. But you might not believe it, despite the myriad reasons to do so. Darwin had to go halfway around the world to get evidence for evolution, but I can see descent with modification, every day in the lab. My everyday experience cements this abstract concept as a fundamental characteristic of life, in all it’s flawed beauty. If we want bacteria to propagate a foreign gene, we package the gene we want with a separate gene for antibiotic resistance. Adding antibiotic to the growing bacteria vaporises the unlucky ones that didn’t get our package, and we get a pure population. But not quite. Some of the population develop the wherewithal to deal with the antibiotic on the spot. When we plate out the bacteria on agar, not all the colonies are positive for our gene – some have become resistant to the antibiotic, without knowing how. They were just lucky enough to make mistakes when dividing, which gave them precious advantage, and the opportunity to survive and thrive.

A materialist explanation of consciousness is lacking. To HA Orr’s eloquent riposte, I would add two more reasons. First, complexity. There isn’t going to be a paperback book (like The Selfish Gene) that can explain the brain to you. The brain is probably more complex and subtle than anything else in the Universe. The LHC is a couple of marbles in a bucket compared to the brain. The information may be already known, but given the complexity of the subject, it’s possible that no one at the moment understands it! Second, although neuroscience research is progressing at a cracking pace, there’s so much not known. New tools arrive every week, and non-invasive, in vivo monitoring of individual cells activity on a timescale that makes sense is no longer science fiction. This is not to say that materialism will explain consciousness, just that it’s no surprise that we currently have no clue, and it’s too early to imagine that we have failed.

Don’t panic: we are working on it.


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