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Mind and Cosmos: Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s Brave Critique of Scientific Reductionism

How our hunger for definitive answers robs us of the intellectual humility necessary for understanding the universe and our place in it.

“The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder,” Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky famously noted, “but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it.” And yet, we live in a media culture that warps seeds of scientific understanding into sensationalist, definitive headlines about the gene for obesity or language or homosexuality and maps where, precisely, love or fear or the appreciation of Jane Austen is located in the brain — even though we know that it isn’t the clinging to answers but the embracing of ignorance that drives science.

In 1974, philosopher Thomas Nagel penned the essay “What It’s Like To Be A Bat?”, which went on to become one of the seminal texts of contemporary philosophy of mind. Nearly four decades later, he returns with Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (public library) — a provocative critique of the limits of scientific reductionism, exploring what consciousness might be if it isn’t easily explained as a direct property of physical interactions and if the door to the unknown were, as Richard Feynman passionately advocated, left ajar.

To be sure, Nagel is far from siding with the intellectual cop-outs of intelligent design. His criticism of reductive materialism isn’t based on religious belief (or on any belief in a particular alternative, for that matter) but, rather, on the insistence that a recognition of these very limitations is a necessary precondition for exploring such alternatives, “or at least being open to their possibility” — a possibility that makes mind central to understanding the natural order, rather than an afterthought or a mere byproduct of physical laws.

He writes in the introduction:

[T]he mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms, but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history.

[…]

Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning, but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole.

As a proponent of making the timeless timely again through an intelligent integration of history with contemporary culture, I find Nagel’s case for weaving a historical perspective into the understanding of mind particularly compelling:

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.

[…]

The greatest 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 the 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.

Ultimately, Nagel echoes John Updike’s reflection on the possibility of “permanent mystery”:

It is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations and not merely beyond our grasp in humanity’s present stage of intellectual development.

Though Mind and Cosmos isn’t a neat package of scientific, or even philosophical, answers, it’s a necessary thorn in the side of today’s all-too-prevalent scientific reductionism and a poignant affirmation of Isaac Asimov’s famous contention that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”

Image: Orion Nebula; public domain courtesy of The Smithsonian

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Stunning Black & White Engravings by Ian Hugo from Anaïs Nin’s Hand-Printed Under a Glass Bell, 1944

Stunning artwork from a hand-made book that presages modern self-publishing entrepreneurship.

Anaïs Nin may have become best-known and celebrated for her remarkable diaries and letters spanning more than six decades, but she also published a number of short stories and novels. It wasn’t until the publication of the short-story collection Under a Glass Bell (public library) in 1944 that Nin’s work began to garner attention from the literary pantheon, propelled by a favorable review in The New Yorker by Edmund Wilson, whom Nin qualified in her diary as “the highest authority among the critics.”

But the book’s story itself is a fascinating piece of cultural history and a heartening, timely exemplar of everything from self-publishing to woman-led entrepreneurship to the maker movement.

In 1942, when Nin couldn’t find a publisher for the book in an industry bent under the weight of wartime financial pressures, she started her own publishing house, Gremor Press, in a small loft on Macdougal Street in New York. She taught herself typesetting and fell in love with the letterpress. Her husband, banker-turned-artist Hugh Parker Gulier, who went by the artistic pseudonym Ian Hugo, created all the line-on-copper engravings for the book, and Nin herself set the type by hand. She eventually printed 300 copies in the first edition, sold via an innovative subscription model, which sold out in three weeks, and another 100 a second edition.

I was recently fortunate enough to hunt down one of the few surviving original hand-printed copies and have scanned Hugo’s stunning engravings for your viewing pleasure:

The book comes complete with an endearing typo in the endnote, a souvenir of the humanness that brought this handmade book to life:

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Sylvia Plath Reads “A Birthday Present”: A Rare 1962 Recording

“I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year. / After all I am alive only by accident.”

Sylvia Plath’s is one of the most heartbreaking tragedies in modern literary history. How does a creature so breathlessly and earnestly in love with the world, in love with art, and in love with love come to take her own life?

In October of 1962, mere months before her death, Plath recorded herself reading “A Birthday Present,” written the previous month and later included in her beloved poetry collection Ariel. The recording was one of several broadcasts Plath participated in for BBC’s celebrated series “The Poet’s Voice” and survives on The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. With lines like “I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year. / After all I am alive only by accident. / I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way,” the poem stops you dead in your tracks as you absorb the quiet catastrophe of Plath’s fate and simultaneously behold the all-too-human, universal terror that birthdays stir in all of us, that subtle but inevitable reminder of our own mortality. And yet — “sweetly, sweetly” — perhaps you’re moved to reach for, to choose, a different truth, the one 18-year-old Sylvia knew when she wrote, “I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have.”

A Birthday Present

What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful?
It is shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges?

I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is what I want.
When I am quiet at my cooking I feel it looking, I feel it thinking

Is this the one I am to appear for,
Is this the elect one, the one with black eye-pits and a scar?

Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus,
Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules.

Is this the one for the annunciation?
My god, what a laugh!’

But it shimmers, it does not stop, and I think it wants me.
I would not mind if it were bones, or a pearl button.

I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year.
After all I am alive only by accident.

I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way.
Now there are these veils, shimmering like curtains,

The diaphanous satins of a January window
White as babies’ bedding and glittering with dead breath. O ivory!

It must be a tusk there, a ghost column.
Can you not see I do not mind what it is.

Can you not give it to me?
Do not be ashamed–I do not mind if it is small.

Do not be mean, I am ready for enormity.
Let us sit down to it, one on either side, admiring the gleam,

The glaze, the mirrory variety of it.
Let us eat our last supper at it, like a hospital plate.

I know why you will not give it to me,
You are terrified

The world will go up in a shriek, and your head with it,
Bossed, brazen, an antique shield,

A marvel to your great-grandchildren.
Do not be afraid, it is not so.

I will only take it and go aside quietly.
You will not even hear me opening it, no paper crackle,

No falling ribbons, no scream at the end.
I do not think you credit me with this discretion.

If you only knew how the veils were killing my days.
To you they are only transparencies, clear air.

But my god, the clouds are like cotton.
Armies of them. They are carbon monoxide.

Sweetly, sweetly I breathe in,
Filling my veins with invisibles, with the million

Probable motes that tick the years off my life.
You are silver-suited for the occasion. O adding machine—–

Is it impossible for you to let something go and have it go whole?
Must you stamp each piece purple,

Must you kill what you can?
There is one thing I want today, and only you can give it to me.

It stands at my window, big as the sky.
It breathes from my sheets, the cold dead center

Where split lives congeal and stiffen to history.
Let it not come by the mail, finger by finger.

Let it not come by word of mouth, I should be sixty
By the time the whole of it was delivered, and too numb to use it.

Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil.
If it were death

I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes.
I would know you were serious.

There would be a nobility then, there would be a birthday.
And the knife not carve, but enter

Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,
And the universe slide from my side.

Thanks, Natascha

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