Mind and Cosmos – Why the materialist, Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. This book title announcing the approximately 200 pages long comprehensive elaboration of U.S. philosopher Thomas Nagel -a philosophy teacher in the US who was born in 1937 in Belgrade- is striking. It’s a gauntlet which the philosopher throws at the overwhelming majority of scientists. The book which got published in English in 2012 and in German last year is shaking the self- certainties of science and exposing the self-infatuations of its protagonists. The book has been qualified by some layers of the Anglo-American scientific community as the “most despised science book”. (Mark Vernon of The Guardian January 4, 2013)
Why is there such frenzy? Nagel does not belong to the wide spread current of Creationists and representatives of the Intelligent Design, even though the author argues persistently that some questions posed by the proponents of the Intelligent Design should be answered more seriously. Nagel describes himself as non – religious but he also emphasizes that the orthodoxy of today’s wide spread militant Weltanschauung of naturalism (Nagel uses this German term Weltanschauung in his English edition) with which everything supposedly can be exhaustively explained, has challenged him to write his book: “My target is a comprehensive, speculative world picture that is reached by extrapolation from some of the discoveries of biology, chemistry, and physics – a particular naturalistic Weltanschauung that postulates a hierarchical relation among the subjects of those sciences, and the completeness in principle of an explanation of everything in the universe through unification.” (p.4)
Concerning the question about the role of the human consciousness and the human mind, Thomas Nagel demonstrated by way of his arguments, which are not always easy to read that this cannot be answered with the method of the conventional Neo-Darwinian selection theory: “The starting point for the argument is the failure of psychophysical reductionism, a position in the philosophy of mind that is largely motivated by the hope of showing how the physical sciences could in principle provide a theory of everything.” (p.4)
One would like to exclaim at this point: At last there is a book which in its stringent argumentation makes reference again to the fundamental debate, which puts the human consciousness, that most genial characteristic of the human being, in the center of life sciences – and not to fall into the trap of the psychophysical reductionism!
From different points of view Nagel tries to anchor this special characteristic of man as an outstanding building principle in the history of nature. During my studies (A.H.) there was a lot of discussion about the “psychophysical parallelism” in order to better determine the processes of human consciousness and self-consciousness.
But the overwhelming triumph of the psychophysical reductionism in the worldwide research efforts for example The Human Brain Project of the European Union or the American sponsored BRAIN research project whose promotion is funded with Billions of Euros and Dollars, have so far delivered little demonstrable results. Also from the side of some German neuroscientists which 10 years ago made a somewhat exuberant forecast on the future technical possibilities of neuroscience, today made a critical reassessment. In the German magazine Psychologie heute 3/2014 which was published at the occasion of the 10th anniversary of that forecast, under the title “Reflexive Neuroscience”, a memorandum written by 15 known neuroscientists is published in which they demand a “rethinking”: “What is needed is a new, scientifically based image of man. The present state of affairs is rather disappointing from our point of view. We are very far away from the aims which were originally envisioned. The reason for this goes far beyond organizational and technical difficulties. On the one side these are rooted in the weakness of the theory of neuroscience, on the other hand in the too little reflected naturalist hypothesis and concepts. That makes the desire to sustainably build bridges to psychology, philosophy and cultural sciences very difficult.”
Thomas Nagel distances itself from superficial attempts to mix up the insights and scientific achievements by Charles Darwin with the highly simplistic theories of today’s Neo-Darwinists. However, the campaigns of Richard Dawkins challenge him to contradict: “The more details we know about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable standard historical account becomes.” (Nagel adds in his footnote: “See Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: Norton, 1986), for a canonical exposition, which seems to convince practically everyone.” p. 5)
Presumably some serious researchers must begin to internalize the criticism put forth by Thomas Nagel before they can advance in their research projects.
What comes to my mind is Plato’s Parmenides dialogue which I reread recently. A few years ago my wife had the opportunity to briefly personally discuss in the context of a seminar at the Evangelical Academy in Tutzing (Bavaria) with the physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (1912-2007). When it came to the question where Weizsäcker sees the future challenges for fundamental physics research, Weizsäcker replied to her that there is an urgent need to study closely again the Parmenides dialogue (Plato 370 BC )- a precondition as he put it, to find a way out of the too narrow scientific debate today. This is certainly even truer with respect to today’s research in human consciousness, cognition or brain research.
In his Parmenides dialogue Plato has pushed dialectical search for truth to its utmost limit, at different levels. Even 2400 years after the creation of this philosophical work, which contains a lot of puzzling formulations concerning the question of the “One” and the “Many”—it is also clear that without this mental exercise und the awareness how important this dialogue is, there is not going to be found solution for the many unsolved problems in the field of scientific investigation related to the nature of the human mind, of human consciousness and its interaction with physical conditions and processes.
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