Thomas Nagel calls for a new theory of the natural world

March 13, 2016

Tags: Thomas Nagel, Mind, Natural Selection

It has taken me some months to catch up with Thomas Nagel`s MIND & COSMOS. This is a brave book, determined to sweep away the dictatorship of the new proletariat of the intellectual world, the Neo-Darwinians. Their obsession with finding a straightforward materialist solution to problems of the natural order of things has bullied all but the theists into silence. This in turn has invited the neo-Darwinian fanatics, and I do not use the word "fanatics" loosely, to denounce Nagel in terms that must have even the most hardened followers of the Stalinist school of denunciation birling in their graves.

Nagel makes no bones about the extent of his critique. Much will be familiar to lovers of literature and the arts, but here a professor of science has joined the fray from a perspective that is the opposite from T.S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis who began the battle over the so-called "dissociation of sensibility." This dissociation is the fracture between thought and feeling that crept in with the birth of modern science.
Nagel has rightly located this as at the root of the crisis not only in the humanities but in scientific thinking also. Early in MIND & COSMOS, he writes: "the 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 .....it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history."

Nagel explains the evolutionary backdrop to this crisis: "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."

But this will not just be the historical adjustment that Thomas Nagel imagines. It will be a huge adjustment to all our assumptions, and will involve re-thinking our view of evolution into the present time, giving a more radical meaning to the recent re-definition of this epoch as the Anthropocene Era.

Further though, the processes of Metamorphosis play a key role in evolution, and need to be read across the full spectrum: Norman O. Brown`s LOVE`S BODY has drawn attention to some linguistic threads from Descartes:
“Larva means mask; or ghost. Larvatus, masked, a personality - larvatus prodeo (Descartes); it also means mad, a case of demoniacal possession. Larva is also `the immature form of animals characterized by metamorphosis`; in the grub state; before their transformation into a pupa, or pupil; i.e. before their initiation.”

If we add in the origins of the insect in ovum and the final creature in imago, which the Greeks named psyche, there is fourfold spiral of maturation.
So in the metamorphic insects, there is the following tetradic evolution:
from ovum, egg
to larva, grub, caterpillar
then pupa or chrysalis
and finally the imago - butterfly, bee, moth, wasp or beetle.

The centrality of these processes is seen in human "high" culture where the 4 movements of the sonata form, also found in symphonic structure, imitates these processes. So we move from the statement of themes, thru the usually slow second (the larva), then the scherzo (the twitchy pupa) to the finale.

Thus the cultural world `echoes` the natural world, providing a clue to the particular significance of Metamorphosis in the overall natural set-up. This is the missing Mind element that was discarded to bring to light the purely physical discoveries. But it has to be inserted to get the full picture, so to speak, and once it is inserted, then the magnitude of vision is immediately apparent. And it is no accident that Descartes had already stumbled on the key formula, coming as he did out of the shadows.

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