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Thomas Nagel: "Mind and Cosmos"

Meetup type: Book discussion (attendees are encouraged to read all or at least some parts of the book before the meetup)

This book by Thomas Nagel is only a few months old, but has generated it's fair share of commentary, argument, and questions. The general idea is that the author, a philosopher of mind within the analytic school, contends that it is extremely unlikely that purely materialistic Darwinian evolution, as presently understood and studied, can exclusively be the mechanism responsible for the natural world and it's species, including us.

Nagel has a lot of street cred both in recent academia because of his research and writings on consciousness, and also his stance as an avowed atheist. This is basically what is interesting about his book, in fact: that such a well-regarded figure is trying to make a sharp delineation between materialism and atheism. And if you read a few of the criticisms included below carefully, you will notice that it is just upon this sticking point that people are saying 'huh?'. The overwhelming portion of atheists I've ever encountered, doubly so if they are ardent or vocal, see materialism and atheism as strongly implying one another, and almost equivalent. I personally consider it extremely necessary in our present culture, intellectually, to logically assess these two -isms independently, without pre-conceived frames of connection.

The book is also worthwhile if just taken from the point of view of it's discussion of evolutionary theory, and it's explanatory value and legitimacy.

My aim is to remain out of the actual discussion and debating, providing a moderator's role. I will likely however come with 3 or 4 questions to put forward, in order to give some structure to the discussion. (discussion needn't be limited to these)

Here's Nagel's book followed by some supplementary materials:
-- inflential early paper of Nagel's

Meetup charge: free, but attendees should order something for themselves from the restaurant. You can order from the self-service in the upstairs when you arrive or during our meetup.

Group's policy on RSVPs: Every member is expected to respect their RSVP for each event and keep it up to date. Two instances of non-respect of the RSVP will lead to the member being removed from the group.

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  • Robert

    Also thanks for the link, Vincent. Would take a long time for me to read it non-superficially since there are many terms I would need to define and understand, in order to evaluate the degree of speculation involved. What most interested me were the estimated generation counts associated with the eye development. This is the direction I was pointing at during the discussion. What is indicated, I believe, is the need for a more serious quantification and probabilistic study extending this idea. Nice to see some thinking about it. Also interesting was to note, when I researched Nick Lane a bit, that he seems equally concerned that consciousness is noteworthy of our attention, regarding how convincingly it is explained by evolution. I gathered this from looking through commentary on his 'Ten Great Inventions of Evolution'. At least he doesn't pretend it doesn't exist. :)

    March 29, 2013

    • Vincent

      Yes, you are right. I didn't remember that Lane was showing this example of how many generations could be necessary for the development of the modern eye. Nick lane is a great author, "Oxygen" and "mitochondria and the meaning of life" are great books. Didn't read the 'Ten Great Inventions of Evolution"...yet.

      April 2, 2013

  • Vincent

    May I suggest this paper concerning one of the questions that Nagel has, concerning the probability of life? The paper explains how life can come to be by the workings of the laws of physics and biochemistry, and that if this hypothesis is correct, the emergence of life is quite likely on rocky planets with liquid water.
    This hypothesis is one of the several hypotheses being tested.
    Kelly, could you give me an example of the"certain proteins or processes in the human body (that) has not evolved and improved as would have been prescribed by Darwinism"?

    February 18, 2013

    • David

      Thanks for the article, Vincent.

      March 24, 2013

    • Vincent

      And here is another one about the "Lamarckian" modulation of heredity by epigenetics. Nothing about consciousness though :) http://www.the-scient...­

      March 25, 2013

  • Tim

    Very stimulating & fun evening.

    March 24, 2013

  • Prashant B.

    Short notice. Next time I'll be more diligent about responding.

    March 24, 2013

  • Prashant B.

    Might arrive a bit late.

    March 24, 2013

  • Nick W.

    Sorry for the last minute cancellations; stranded in the UK for longer than expected...

    March 20, 2013

  • Clifford


    March 19, 2013

  • Christian

    Looking forward to discuss. Interesting topic!

    March 18, 2013

  • Paul

    i love philosophy of mind

    March 17, 2013

  • Masood

    Hey folks, I'd like to point out that this comment section should solely be used to arrange the meetup and not for getting into a debate. With every comment, an email is sent to all attendees which at times is not very pleasant. Please use the group's Message Board to engage in discussions, if you cannot hold your horses till the meetup day. Robert hosts this meetup and has provided more than enough information in the description for everybody to decide whether or not they want to read/attend. As already mentioned, attending a meetup does not mean you're agreeing with whatever the author has written about. Please decide for yourself whether or not you'd like to attend. Hope to see you all at the meetup!

    February 19, 2013

  • Serge O.

    I can accept that there may be subtleties in the processes of evolution that Darwin may not have been in a position to discover. Darwinism is not an ideology that must not be questioned. It remains a compelling diagram that goes a long way to explaining evolution. If Nagel (correct me if I'm wrong) is suggesting any sort of supernatural or mystical explanation for some of these subtle phenomena, then I'm sorry, but I'm really not interested in reading or discussing more about it. Life is too short Stoian. And Kelly, if there's implication of intelligent design but not by a deity, then what? Extraterrestials engineering life on Earth? Again, not a direction I'm interested in pursuing. I am nearly certain that life (simple and advanced) exists thoughout our galaxy and others but to say that physical contact is improbable is to wildly understate the problem.

    1 · February 19, 2013

  • Serge O.

    I would maybe agree with Nagel that human-type consciousness has exceptional significance. I would add that all individuals should feel free to explore all dimensions of the mind. Does any of that conflict with Darwin?

    February 16, 2013

    • Kelly H.

      Read "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?"

      February 17, 2013

  • Serge O.

    I don't know, haven't read everything, but at first impression - it all sounds kind of like theism, or perhaps pantheism! Can anyone motivate me to read more?

    February 16, 2013

    • Kelly H.

      Well I don't know if you've read some philosophy of religion stuff. I forget which biologist, but there is scientific proof that certain proteins or processes in the human body has not evolved and improved as would have been prescribed by darwinism. I am not religious and I don't think if there is intelligent design, such a designer has to be God or whatever deity. But in the usual Nagel style, he tends to just pose problems and points out contradicting conceptions, which in this case would be treading more on holy grounds, and hence causing a lot of controversy in the usually secular intellectual spheres.

      February 17, 2013

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