This piece has just gone up at the Guardian’s Comment is free…
Every year, I “give” an award to the Most Despised Science Book of the Year. The 2010 award went to Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini for What Darwin Got Wrong. In 2011, Ray Tallis won with Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.
My runner-up this time is Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion, though in fact it had a strikingly decent reception for a book also critiquing scientistic dogmatism.
So the winner for 2012 must be Thomas Nagel, for his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.
Steven Pinker dammed it with faint praise when he described it in a tweet as “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker”. Jerry Coyne blogged: “Nagel goes the way of Alvin Plantinga”, which is like being compared to Nick Clegg. All in all, Nagel’s gadfly stung and whipped them into a fury.
Disparagement is particularly unfair, though, because the book is a model of carefulness, sobriety and reason. If reading Sheldrake feels daring, Tallis thrilling and Fodor worthwhile but hard work, reading Nagel feels like opening the door on to a tidy, sunny room that you didn’t know existed. It is as if his heart said to his head, I can’t help but feel that materialist reductionism isn’t right. And his head said to his heart, OK: let’s take a fresh look. So what caused the offence?
Several things, but consider one: the contention that evolution may tend towards consciousness. Nagel is explicit that he himself is not countenancing a designer. Rather, he wonders whether science needs to entertain the possibility that a teleological trend is immanent in nature.
There it is. The t-word – a major taboo among evolutionary biologists. Goal-directed explanations automatically question your loyalty to Darwin. As Friedrich Engels celebrated, when reading On The Origin of Species in 1859: “There was one aspect of teleology that had yet to be demolished, and that has now been done.” But has it? This is the moot point.
The scientifically respectable become edgy when approaching this domain. Read Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson’s measured piece on the reaction Nagel’s book sparked, published in Prospect. The possibility that the universe wants, in some way, to become conscious will “appear absurd” or “strange”, he warns. But bear the anxiety, he doesn’t quite continue, and consider the arguments.
I’m considering some of them with Rupert Sheldrake in a series of podcasts, if you’ll forgive the plug. But it is striking that they can be aired in relatively kosher scientific circles too. A recent example is Paul Davies’s bestseller, The Goldilocks Enigma. Davies argues that the refusal of natural teleology rests on an assumption that nature obeys laws that are written into the fabric of the cosmos. However, quantum physics offers every reason to doubt that this is so. The upshot is that Davies himself favours a universe that contains a “life principle”.
So how come teleology is acceptable among cosmologists? It may be that they are used to the basic assumptions of their science being regularly overturned. Biology, though, has had a very good run since 1859. Questioning their science feels like a form of self-sabotage and dangerous. Hence, Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg, reviewing Nagel for the Nation, evoked the spectre of supernaturalism; and Simon Blackburn, reviewing for the New Statesman, jested that “if there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index”.
That was written tongue-in-cheek, but it is a purity argument no less. As Mary Douglas pointed out, secular societies still draw symbolic boundaries to keep the permissible in and threatening stuff out. Those who cross them risk expulsion. The media ritual of the public review offers a mechanism.
As Freeman Dyson recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, contemporary philosophers bow too low to science, mostly because they haven’t done any, and have simultaneously lost touch with the elements that made their predecessors so great: the truths held by history, literature, religion. The 2012 award is well earned. We need those prepared to face the flak.