Made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world

Church Street (The Separateness Of Physical Science, And Its Claim To Completeness) ©MAIERMOUL
Church Street (The Separateness Of Physical Science, And Its Claim To Completeness) ©MAIERMOUL

The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle’s day. That it has produced you, and me, and the rest of us is the most astonishing thing about it.

If contemporary research in molecular biology leaves open the possibility of legitimate doubts about a fully mechanistic account of the origin and evolution of life, dependent only on the laws of chemistry and physics, this can combine with the failure of psychophysical reductionism to suggest that principles of a different kind are also at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic. I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.

The great advances in the physical and biological sciences were made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world. This has permitted a quantitative understanding of that world, expressed in timeless, mathematically formulated physical laws. But at some point it will be necessary to make a new start on a more comprehensive understanding that includes the mind. It seems inevitable that such an understanding will have a historical dimension as well as a timeless one. The idea that historical understanding is part of science has become familiar through the transformation of biology by evolutionary theory. But more recently, with the acceptance of the big bang, cosmology has also become a historical science. Mind, as a development of life, must be included as the most recent stage of this long cosmological history, and its appearance, I believe, casts its shadow back over the entire process and the constituents and principles on which the process depends.

The question is whether we can integrate this perspective with that of the physical sciences as they have been developed for a mindless universe. The understanding of mind cannot be contained within the personal point of view, since mind is the product of a partly physical process; but by the same token, the separateness of physical science, and its claim to completeness, has to end in the long run. And that poses the question: To what extent will the reductive form that is so central to contemporary physical science survive this transformation? If physics and chemistry cannot fully account for life and consciousness, how will their immense body of truth be combined with other elements in an expanded conception of the natural order that can accommodate those things?

(Click on “Look Inside” to read the entire introduction for free.)– Thomas Nagel, Introduction, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False