I’ve been intermittently reading Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos. Intermittently in part because, like, I have a life, in part because some of it’s dense and I’m not super-engaged in the materialist stuff Nagel critiques, in part because I’m busy reading lots of other stuff, in part because I’ve been brushing up on Hebrew a bit, and in part because I’ve got tests to write and work to grade.
I’m not coming at Nagel from any particular direction–I’m not one of the religious folks making common cause with him because of his critique of materialism as it exists on his (and their?) account, and I’m not on board with the folks Nagel is out to critique. I discovered the book after a retweet of a link to Leon Wieseltier’s discussion of the book on his blog with The New Republic.
But I do come at the book from an essentially humanist Jewish perspective, and I think Nagel’s critique captures a couple of important matters that we as humanists may miss from time to time. One of them is simply this: we don’t actually know everything, and it’s likely folly to think, however good our explanatory and exploratory tools, that our current methods for investigating the world are going to be the last word on any subject. The other is: as humanists and, frankly, rationalists, we err when we think that our rational apprehension of the world satisfies all.
Let me start from the second of those points. One of the things I think we miss out on when we are too humanist, too rational, is that religion serves a number of functions, and among those is a reflection of how peoples encounter the ineffable. (Note that I didn’t say the divine–what is sacred or profane is, I think, a matter of human definition.) Much of Nagel’s critique of both theism and materialism, it seems to me, is unsatisfying to his critics in part because it butts up against what religion has done so well–allow a path to speculate on the ineffable.
The reason, I think, Nagel has no firm or satisfying path forward is that we’re not at a point where we can rationally apprehend and discuss the zone of concerns that Nagel has about mind vs. brain. Might we in the future? Perhaps–but I don’t know, and neither, I suspect, do you. But that ineffable area of concern–we are remiss to disregard the role that religion plays in allowing us to apprehend and ease ourselves about that. (Not that this doesn’t get very, very out of hand at times–just that we are remiss when we disregard religious language as providing a set of tools to discuss that.)
That takes me back to the first point about explanatory paradigms. When I said “I don’t know, and neither, I suspect, do you,” I was thinking quite distinctly of a Kuhnian approach to science. Perhaps we will have a scientific advance that allows us to get at the brain vs. mind issues Nagel is concerned with–or maybe Nagel’s concerns are pointing up the kinds of problems that, on Kuhn’s account, lead to scientific revolutions.
In any case, don’t discount religion or Thomas Kuhn.