The Ground of Reason and Rationality: a Response to “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False” by Thomas Nagel


Unsurprisingly my agreement with Nagel begins and is exhausted within the title of this work. The Neo-Darwinian conception of Nature is certainly false. But it cannot simply be patched up with an ungrounded teleology while retaining the fundamental assumptions that guide it. Nagel is at pains to maintain the assumptions of rationalism, naturalism and atheism that accompany the Neo-Darwinian thought process, and as such cannot make a meaningful contribution beyond a critique of the ways in which Neo-Darwinism is riddled with contradiction. As a critique, it is useful, certainly in the rhetorical sense. Pointing out the contradictions within the guiding framework demonstrates powerfully that the rejection of the guiding assumptions themselves is not an arbitrary whim but a necessary thinking in order to move beyond the failure of Cartesian science.

Reasons for action apply only to beings with reason, and value can be recognized as the explanation of the reasons that we have, but the concept of value has a much wider range of application than that. Only beings capable of practical reason can recognize value, but once they recognize it, they find it in the lives of creatures without practical reason. In the broadest sense it is probably coextensive with life, though how much of this value we humans have any reason to care about is a question I will leave open. It seems too simple to hold that only the value in conscious lives generates reasons.

Nagel, Thomas (2012-08-29). Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (p. 118). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Reasons are of course grounded in reason, or rationality, but in what is ‘value’ grounded? Value is grounded in measure, specifically in measure as price. Literal explanation is grounded in literal record-keeping, in memory already experienced as bookkeeping, making accounting-for in the sense of rationality possible.

The claim in Nagel’s book is that rationality and consciousness (but not rational consciousness itself) are irreducible in principle without severely damaging the truth-claim of the sciences. This irreducibility necessarily comes into conflict with a developmentalist view, since that view must account-for the development of reason while assuming that development as itself rational, thus assuming rationality as already operative prior to its development.

Nagel also re-introduces teleology, although he is at pains to posit a ‘naturalistic’ teleology – some sort of underlying ‘law’ that would complement the physical laws that sustain the mechanistic explanations of Neo-Darwinism. He appears to fail to see that such a teleology is inherent in any case in any developmentalist theory insofar as it is a theory of development and not merely a description of random change. Even where Neo-Darwinists explicitly disavow such a teleology they can only do so insofar as their terminology simultaneously sustains it. The teleology of Neo-Darwinism is restricted to a teleology of ‘fitness’. The failure of Neo-Darwinism, like the failure of Stoic evolutionism, becomes most obvious precisely in the fact that ‘fitness’ always means fitness-for a determinate situation. However the developmental account of reality expressed as evolution cannot assume such a determinate situation and so cannot ‘normalize’ fitness. A teleology of fitness, then, only suffices for the adaptation of specific species and their extinctions, but not for the development of life overall, the results of which development are the changing determination that any fitness must be fitness-for. This basic equivocation in Neo-Darwinism echoes the problem of Stoic evolutionists, and the ‘solution’ of the Stoics was the invention of a literal creator-being that could sustain the development of the overall that determines individual and species fitness. This literal creationism is in no way equivalent to the mythos of creation that preceded the rational developmental account we know as evolution, since the mythos of creation was not experienced or understood as literal, but as metaphorical. Leaving aside partial creation myths, such as those in Genesis, that in fact are a metaphorical account of the origin of the Hebrews as a specific people and not an account of the origin of reality or even life in general, even the more comprehensive creation myths of the Greeks and others were always understood as metaphor. This can be the case because history itself as origin was experienced as metaphorical until shortly before the development of the notion of evolution itself. Evolution becomes an obvious means of accounting for the evidence of nature only insofar as nature itself is posited as a historical record, itself a metaphorical posit based on the literal record-keeping of currency transactions in a mercantile economy. This book-keeping ascribed to nature first provides for the possibility of a rational accounting-for nature, which is quickly seen as evolutionary.

Consciousness, like reason, is irreducible for Nagel. He goes through an impressive history of the failure to account for consciousness via developmental theories circumscribed by ‘natural law’, without bringing natural law and the physical mechanism inherent in it into question. Even a cursory understanding of the history of physicalism, though, demonstrates that it is predicated on an a priori and necessary subtraction of consciousness from its projection of reality as uniform dimensional spatiality containing objects that operate via mechanistic causality. A more involved understanding would show that this subtraction, although made explicit at the beginning of modernity, has always in a more covert sense been operative in western metaphysics. Nagel, like the Neo-Darwinists themselves, remains tied to the rationalist Cartesian / Newtonian account of physical reality and mechanistic causality, although that account has been radically undermined within physics itself by the advent of quantum mechanics. The failure of science based on mechanistic physicalism to re-introduce consciousness into a projection of reality only itself made possible by the prior subtraction of consciousness is hardly surprising, and underlies the specific failures Nagel recounts.

Nagel is also at pains to not bring the irreducibility of reason and of consciousness together. As a naturalist atheist, a priori reason and a priori consciousness is problematic enough. However reason cannot properly be posited as distinct from rational consciousness. As such the irreducibility of reason is always simultaneously the irreducibility of rational consciousness. The separate account of the irreducibility of consciousness serves only to obscure this coincidence of reason and rational consciousness. What name could anyone give, though, to an a priori rational consciousness – that is, a rational consciousness that is a priori to reality as-a-whole? The obscurantism here serves only to make the retention of naturalistic atheism apparently sustainable.

The difficulties Nagel sees quite clearly but fails to overcome arise from rationalism itself. Rationalism must assume reason, but such an assumption leaves it necessarily ungrounded. Since reason, though, implies grounds for everything, (“Nothing is without reason” means precisely that everything has reasons or grounds) that must apply to reason itself or it becomes equivalent to nothing. This basic irrationality that sustains rationalism is continued in Nagel as the irreducibility of reason, which always means the irreducibility of rational consciousness and thus makes rational consciousness a necessary prior assumption for any rational developmental account of reality. In terms of such a developmental account, rational consciousness becomes an implicit necessity prior to reality itself, and combined with physical mechanistic causality, that priority can only be understood as temporal priority. In a literal sense, then, Neo-Darwinism requires a rational consciousness that is temporally prior to reality. This is nonsensical even for a theological view, and more so for a view that makes an explicit claim to naturalistic atheism.

The Neo-Platonic form of creationism inherited by early Christianity via St. Augustine itself was a continuation of the Stoic addition of a creator-being that began the process of developmental reality. Augustine himself was uncomfortable with the notion of the creator-being as expressed in Neo-Platonism, but without an understanding of Aristotle (and with the simplification of Plato himself in Neo-Platonism) was unable to pin down the inconsistency he nevertheless intuited. It took Aquinas’ interpretation of Aristotle to properly expose the problematic nature of Neo-Platonist creationism, in that the notion of an eternal being at a specific temporal point creating reality as-a-whole was irrational, and contradicted the notion of God as the highest rationality. Aquinas’ solution was to restore creation to its original metaphorical status, as a means by which finite human beings could understand the more complex notion of God as eternal ground, and reality as the eternal expression of that ground. Neo-Platonic creationism, though, re-irrupted in the 20th century as the “big bang theory”, which is isomorphic to it, the only difference being that the singularity is not posited as being an aware, conscious rationality, although it is posited as rational (and therefore determinable mathematically). This theory, though, contains an even more overt self-contradiction than that of Neo-Platonism, since the singularity is temporally tensed, i.e. it no longer is, and was not outside reality precisely as being all of reality, as rational it requires some sort of ground. That ground cannot be temporally prior, since temporality itself is posited as originating in the big bang. The creator-being of Neo-Platonism does not mirror this contradiction, since it is outside temporality and eternal, its rationality requires no ground, it is rather the eternal and thus ungrounded ground of rationality itself.

The question, then, is that if rationality is itself rational, in what is it grounded? Cognition, as rational consciousness, has to be grounded in something other than rational consciousness. The primary understanding of cognition is grounded in metaphor. Metaphor is not fundamentally linguistic, the reverse is true; language as such is grounded in semiotic metaphor, which is further based on pre-semiotic metaphor. Metaphor is pre-rational; it can be neither rational nor irrational.

Thus the irreducibility of rational consciousness is merely a consequence of the irrationality of rationalism. This though undermines Neo-Darwinism for the reasons Nagel is at pains to retain a priori reason and to a greater degree than he is aware of. The rationality of Neo-Darwinism is based on the evidence of the natural-historical record, but this record, and nature itself as historical, it itself metaphorical and based on positing nature as a metaphorical book-keeper, which can only be meaningful if logos, or ratio, has already been reduced from gathering to the measure of what has been gathered. It’s not the case that the complex ‘mystical’ logos of Heraclitus is originary, rather it was an attempt at a re-investment of meaning into logos, which was already experienced as mere measure and not the gathering of what gathers. Thus ratio was not a reductive translation, but the obvious and accurate translation of logos already understood as measure. Similarly, the older term Kairos already meant currency, rather than the originary “appropriate measure”, and aletheia was already understood prior to the pre-platonic thinkers as adequatio, the adequate correspondence of value to what was valued, and not the etymological implication of unhiddenness. Since both the natural-historical record, the evidential underpinning of evolution, and our basic understanding are both metaphorical, the truth-claim of evolution as literal is undermined drastically. Simultaneously the naturalist atheism that utilizes developmentalism through mechanistic causality is undermined both in its reliance on developmentalism and its reliance on mechanistic causality, which disappears in quantum mechanics. That quantum mechanics is not well understood even by many physicists, and less understood by those in the other sciences, is only derivatively due to its ‘difficulty’. This ‘difficulty’ is itself no more than the difficulty that it drastically undermines the base assumptions on which all the other theories of science are based, and as a result the difficulty is not a difficulty primarily of comprehension, but one of acceptance. Unfortunately for those unwilling to accept the implications of quantum mechanics, the almost uncanny accuracy of its predictions, particularly when they appear ridiculous based on general assumptions about reality, evidently puts those general assumptions into serious question.



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