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Sunday, September 1, 2013


I have just finished reading Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, by my old friend and one-time student, Thomas Nagel.  I am sorry to say that I did not find it an illuminating or persuasive book, for a variety of reasons.  In this brief discussion, I should like to focus on just one, which I think has relevance for a certain kind of philosophy in general, and not just for Tom's book.

Let me begin, somewhat implausibly, by quoting a thirty-year old story from my autobiography about the famous biologist and founder of Sociobiology, E. O. Wilson  [pp. 537-540].   I have edited it down a bit. 

            "A Canadian philosopher, Michael Ruse, asked whether I would like to meet E. O. Wilson.  I said sure, and Ruse set it up.  It was agreed that I would spend an afternoon in his office, which doubled as his laboratory.  In advance of the rendezvous, we exchanged gifts.  I sent him, through Michael, a copy of The Poverty of Liberalism, and he sent back a copy of his latest book, Promethean Fire, co-authored by Wilson and Charles Lumsden.  The volume, which sits on my shelves today, is inscribed "For Robert Paul Wolff, with warm regards, Edward O. Wilson, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard U., January 25, 1984."

            We met in Wilson's office in the Museum.  After the usual greetings, he showed me the centerpiece of the office, a large table on which, under a Plexiglas dome, was a bustling, complex ant colony.  Wilson banged the side of the table, which set the ants scurrying, and as they poured out of the anthill he pointed out the soldier ants, worker ants, and so forth.  I didn't have much in the way of conversation.  What can you say about an anthill, after all?  So, casting about for something to say, I mused aloud, "I wonder how many ants there are in the entire colony."  "Fifteen thousand," Wilson replied.  "How can you be sure?" I asked.  "I counted them," he said.
            There are moments in life when the scales fall from your eyes and you suddenly see clearly something that has hitherto been obscured from view.  This was one of those moments.  I had from time to time reflected on how different the workaday lives are of people in different corners of the Academy, even though we all call ourselves "Professor."   Here was E. O. Wilson, the creator of Sociobiology, who thought nothing at all about counting fifteen thousand ants.  Had anyone asked me to figure out the number of ants in an anthill, the farthest I would have gone was watching eight or ten walk by and then guesstimating the rest.

            To be sure, philosophers sometimes descend to the level of the particular.  But our tendency is to go in somewhat the opposite direction.  Confronted with the real world, the reflex reaction of philosophers is to ask about possible worlds.  It was clear to me that although we were both professors and authors, Wilson and I led lives so utterly different that no real mutual understanding was likely.  It was also clear that however much the world might think of Wilson as the tendentious, controversial author of Sociobiology, his real interest was in those ants.
            When our conversation about the anthill began to drag, Wilson took me into a nearby room in which there were rows of file cabinets.  He pulled out a drawer at random to show me a card on which was impaled an ant.  The card identified the ant as belonging to one of the more than twenty thousand species of ants that are estimated to exist somewhere or other on the face of the earth.  A second ├ęclaircissement illuminated my mind.  I had a vision of thousands of English curates and amateur entomologists, each of whom had devoted much of his or her life to searching for, identifying, catching, impaling, and thus nailing down for all time one of those ant species.  Here again, I saw clearly how different my field was from Wilson's.  Philosophy does not advance by the taking of thousands of tiny steps, assuming for the sake of argument that it advances at all.  Instead, ages pass during which little or nothing happens, although thousands of philosophers are doing their best.  Then, there is a moment of transformation -- fourth century B. C,. in Greece, or the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Western Europe.  Suddenly, the subject leaps forward, changing forever the way we think.  But Entomology is not like that at all.  Every one of those file cards was the evidence of a worthwhile piece of work, undertaken, completed, and added to our knowledge of the ant.  I was properly humbled.  After we parted, I reflected that Wilson probably had learned nothing at all from meeting me, but I felt that I had learned a good deal from meeting him."

In the past several years, guided by my sister, Barbara, I have read a number of books on the latest advances in evolutionary biology and molecular biology.  The work I have found reported there is truly astounding, both in its detail, in its penetration down to the molecular level, and in its breadth and imagination.  Thousands upon thousands of scientists have devoted their lives to studying innumerable species -- their habits, their morphology, their DNA, and such crucially important but obscure matters as the processes inside their cells by which energy is generated and passed along "an energy gradient" to other parts of the cell.  One chapter-long discussion that I especially recall concerned the molecular interactions that take place every time a muscle contracts.  The process takes pages and pages to describe even in terms suitable for a lay reader like myself, and yet that process is repeated thousands of times a second whenever a muscle, any muscle, contracts [as, for example, when a suite of muscles contract so that I can type these words.]
These scientific examinations have been carried out not merely for the human species, but for countless species of spiders, clams, worms, algae, plants, bacteria, fruit flies, fish, and mammals.  We -- which is to say the collective scientific community -- now know so much more than we knew even a few years ago, and will know so much more in a few more years, that simply keeping up as an interested lay person requires constant study.  My sister, who teaches extraordinary courses on this field in an adult education program in Washington D. C., is forced to assign new books almost every year because a work even two or three years old is out of date.

Tom Nagel undertakes in his slender 128 page book to show that "the  materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false," and yet in those pages, there is not a single chapter, a single paragraph, a single sentence, indeed not a single word about all of this extraordinary science.  On the face of it, that just cannot be right.  Surely one cannot engage with the "Neo-Darwinian conception of nature" without so much as relating a single bit of its substance.
"Not so," philosophers will reply.  "We can examine the logical structure of arguments and grasp their validity or invalidity without imposing on ourselves the tedium of master all those details."  Well, maybe so, but I have my doubts.  Consider a different example, this one from the medical field of neurology.  One of the bits of philosophy put forward back in the day when I was actually reading philosophy was the notion of "contrast terms."  It was said that pairs of terms such as "left/right" or "up/down" were defined in relation to one another in such a manner that it was impossible to understand one without understanding the other.  Nobody offered any evidence for this claim.  Its truth was taken as self-evident.  Well, along comes the wonderful neurologist Oliver Sacks, who reports the case of a woman who, having suffered a massive cerebral stroke, lost all understanding of the concept "left" while retaining a complete understanding of the concept "right."  She ate only the food on the right half of her plate and complained that the portions were too small.  When she made herself up, she only put lipstick on the right half of her lips.

It just seems to me that before Tom Nagel announces that the Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false, it behooves him to spend a good deal of time immersed in the substance of that conception.  Tom makes a good deal of the fact of consciousness [to which he devotes one of his five chapters,] claiming, as you might expect, that consciousness is utterly different in kind from the neurological condition of non-conscious life forms.  But he does not talk at all about all the work that has been done tracing, step by step, the neurological development of species that appear to be located somewhere along the continuum between consciousness and non-consciousness.  Perhaps had he done so, he would have concluded that his initial instinct was correct.  But he does not do the work.  And failing to do that work, he is, I think, dismissing and failing to pay attention to all the extraordinary research that is now being done.
What then does Tom offer in place of this "almost certainly false" Neo-Darwinian conception?  Aristotelian natural teleology!  Tom is quite aware that his readers will roll their eyes at this suggestion, but mysteriously, he does not spend any time telling us what precisely he means by natural teleology.  That just strikes me as philosophical malpractice.  I mean, you cannot write a whole book modestly, tentatively, but nonetheless definitively trashing Neo-Darwinism, and then not even take a few pages to spell out exactly what your hesitantly offered alternative is.

One final point, called to my attention by my son, Patrick.  The great philosophers of science in the past  -- Aristotle, Leibniz, Descartes, Kant -- were all completely au courant with the latest scienc [and in many cases made important contributions to it].  None of them, I am convinced, would have undertaken to call into question some major theory of their day without discussing in detail the evidence for it. 
Meanwhile, at my sister's suggestion, I have ordered from Amazon The Art of Being a Parasite by Claude Combes.  It is not scheduled to arrive for another two weeks, but when I have read it, I will report to you on what I have learned.


Unknown said...

This is Howie.
Explain to me. Are metaphysical propositions subject to empirical proof or disproof such as Nagel's? That is his argument metaphysical or scientific and how could anybody prove or disprove it?

Geoff said...

This should be required reading by every philosopher.

Don Schneier said...

I'm surprised that Nagel's almost certainly interesting argument doesn't draw upon his experiences as a bat.

David Auerbach said...

There have been very good, very detailed reviews of Nagel's book by philosophers (usually philosophers of biology, but not always) plus the usual biologists who dabble and the reviews have not been kind. I say this because I don't want readers to mistake Wolff as making a point about the entire field of philosophy of biology, philosophy of mind, etc. Much of it is fully informed as to empirical matters.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, David. I agree completely.

x3xd said...

Great blog post. I am in awe of ants. After spending a summer watching butterflies, caterpillars, moths, beetles, wasps, bees, flies, ants, etc (for the first time since I was a kid), what struck me is that ants blow away all of these creatures on many levels. It also did finally give me some inkling of why my grandfather, an entemologist, spent his life carefully studying fruit flies, mites, ticks, etc. Oh, and a anecdote about the book you are ordering, which I must now order. When my mother was pregnant with her first child, her father the entemologist said to her, "Remember dear, the fetus is a parasite ... take good care of yourself."

ejh said...

How did he count them?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

ejh, one at a time, so far as I could figure out. He may have estimated the number in a group.

x3xd, biologists have endless marvelous stories to tell about the adaptations of the species they study. That is a marvelous story about your father and mother.

Colin Farrelly said...

thanks for this excellent post! I couldn't agree more with your points. It reminds me of insights raised by CP Snow in his famous 1959 lecture titled "Two Cultures". The gulf between scholars in the humanities and natural sciences is a one we should aspire to help narrow. And I am often shocked, and disheartened, when scholars in the humanities dismiss the importance of insights from evolutionary biology without first even attempting to understand what those insights are, and the evidence for them.

Stephen Soldz said...

Thank you for pointing out this silliness. It is especially ridiculous in an age where our most fundamental "common sense" instincts about the physical world are being challenged by scientific work. Evolutionary biology has advanced far. But there is still a continent to be explored. Philosophical arguments are more likely to be useful where they point out areas of ambiguity and lack of clarity. But for demonstrating what future research will or won't find? Not so useful.

I am a clinical psychology researcher and, unfortunately, we have all too much of this silliness in psychology, with arguments from first principles about how the mind must be, but ignoring the details of work in the area.

Don Schneier said...

If an Analytic ape were to mutate, it might endeavor to freshly define 'evolve', 'material', 'nature', and 'causality', not to mention 'logic', and, so, might almost certainly increase its survival chances when threatened by moribund trivialization.

John Mullen said...

RPW's argument against Nagel is that Nagel didn't ennumerate instances of good research in evolutionary biology or psychology. Such mention, however, would have been irrelevant. When Einstein critiqued absolute time did he first have to list all the great work done on the basis of this idea.
Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed RPW's "In Defense of Anarchism" but found nowhere in that very short book a catalog of non-anarchist states or organizations. RPW didn't "count the ants" (Though Aristotle did.)

Larry K said...

You well make a simple but crucial point.

Might you also post the list of some of the other books your sister recommended? Always on the lookout. Thanks in advance.

artkqtarks said...

John Mullen wrote:
"RPW's argument against Nagel is that Nagel didn't ennumerate instances of good research in evolutionary biology or psychology. Such mention, however, would have been irrelevant. When Einstein critiqued absolute time did he first have to list all the great work done on the basis of this idea."

Relativity was a big conceptual leap, alright. But one should keep in mind that (A) it was still built on the foundation of earlier theories including Newtonian mechanics, and (B) Newtonian mechanics did not ceased to be a valuable scientific theory because of relativity. It is still adequate for many purposes. Scientists and engineers all over the world still use it today. Einstein used it himself in his study of Brownian motion. Why should we completely abandon something that has been enormously successful and remains to be useful?

If all Einstein did had been to critique the idea of absolute time, he wouldn't have been considered an influential physicist. What he did was to actually come up with a new theory. In order to achieve this, he had to really know the old theory and do all the math to make sure that his new theory make sense, not just to point out a limitations of the old theory. He had to do his version of counting ants.

Nagel would be taken more seriously if he actually had credible alternative to "the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature." But he doesn't. Why do we have to abandon something that has been enormously successful just because it doesn't explain consciousness (yet)?

Einstein did not have to enumerate the instances where the Newtonian mechanics was useful because both the success and limitations of the Newtonian mechanics were tacitly acknowledged. What Nagel is trying to do here is different.

anechoic said...

I highly recommend this book:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you. I will put it on my to do list

Buzz Skyline said...

Ant ant's lifespan is about 90 days. So on any given day in a population of 15,000 ants, about 166 will die. That's 13 an hour. In a stable population a comparable number would be born. If you could count them at one a second, it would take 4 hours, so about 50 would die and similar numbers would be born. But of course, populations are not steady, so the rates of birth and death will surge based on the conditions, food availability etc. In short, counting 15,000 would be hard to the point of being nearly impossible, and certainly impractical. Wilson was pulling your leg. The most reasonable (and scientific way) to count them would probably be the same way lab techs "count" you red blood cells by looking at a representative volume and multiplying. I believe you that Nagel's book is probably nonsense, but you're using a nonsense example to poke holes in it. How can one false idea be reasonably used to strike down another? It's like arguing that existence of fairies proves there can't be a Bigfoot.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am just reporting what he said. I quite well understand that he did not mean, "One, and now I will put him to one side and count number two, and now I will put him to one side and count number three, and so forth." But in fact the sort of fieldwork that an entomologist does [or an anthropologist, or an archeologist, or a palentologist, etc] bears no relation to the sort of work a Philosopher does. I think it is very important for people who think of themselves as "academics" to keep in mind how wide the range is of activities that constitute our daily work. See my long tutorial on Ideological Critique for a discussion of this in connection with debate about African hunter gatherers.