The philosopher's new book has been fiercely criticised, but he is right to doubt science's ability to explain everythingby Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson / October 23, 2012 / Leave a comment
If we’re to believe science, we’re made of organs and cells. These cells are made up of organic matter. Organic matter is made up chemicals. This goes all the way down to strange entities like quarks and Higgs bosons. We’re also conscious, thinking things. You’re reading these words and making sense of them. We have the capacity to reason abstractly and grapple with various desires and values. It is the fact that we’re conscious and rational that led us to believe in things like Higgs bosons in the first place.
But what if science is fundamentally incapable of explaining our own existence as thinking things? What if it proves impossible to fit human beings neatly into the world of subatomic particles and laws of motion that science describes? In Mind and Cosmos (Oxford University Press), the prominent philosopher Thomas Nagel’s latest book, he argues that science alone will never be able to explain a reality that includes human beings. What is needed is a new way of looking at and explaining reality; one which makes mind and value as fundamental as atoms and evolution.
For most philosophers, and many people in general, this is a radical departure from the way we understand things. Nagel, according to his critics, has completely lost it. Linking to one particularly damning review in The Nation, Steven Pinker tweeted, “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel? Two philosophers expose the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”
Nagel’s pessimism about science’s ability to explain things like consciousness has a long history. In his seminal 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?”, he argues that even if you knew every single physical fact about someone, you’d still have no idea what it is like to be them. I could know everything there is to know about perception, but I’ll never know what it feels like to be colour-blind, save some horrible accident. Similarly no matter how much we know about bats’ ability to use echolocation we can never really know what it is like to be a bat flying about in the dark, navigating with reverberating sound waves. So, given that we are all conscious beings, it seems science is missing out on something quite fundamental. There are facts, or parts of reality, it leaves behind.