Archive Peter Escalante Philosophy

The Science of Dr Nagel

Dr Thomas Nagel’s excellent Mind and Cosmos is, predictably, being denounced by Darwinist inquisitors.

Dr Nagel’s new work was bound to provoke a reaction, since it attacks the very foundations of the N.I.C.E. régime, the supposition that reality is constituted of purely material elements and that mind is an epiphenomenon reducible to matter. The soft version of this supposition allows mind to exist safely in the cage of a parallel world of the merely subjective, along with religion conceived as subjectivity’s product in the face of the material sublime; the harder version wants to finally make the reduction, and enact the practical conclusions.

But it is not simply the work’s thesis which causes such offense. It is rather something which lies behind the objections to Dr Nagel’s being a scientific “layman.” If Dr Nagel were actually proposing a theory within a particular field of inquiry, anything from the endocrine system of fishes to some point of astrophysics, the experts in the field might have some reason to publicly call him out on his lay status if his arguments were demonstrably erroneous in method and data, but were being widely received at the popular level by people incapable of adjudicating their correctness on either score. But this would be a matter of particular fact and method. Dr Nagel, however, is doing something different: he is discussing what we might call the big picture, which includes mind. But the foundational move of modern scientism, as distinct from modern science, is that there is no big picture. Scientism makes the metaphysical assertion that the world is nothing but bits of dead matter with merely mechanical relations, and that therefore the only legitimate mode of knowing the world is mathematical figuration. But this move is unjustified and, in fact, absurd, as C. S. Lewis was one of the first to point out very bluntly – since it is, after all, a mind which is here announcing its own non-existence.

Philosophy, the quest of the mind to adequate the cosmos, cannot possibly accept such constraints. Natural science is an excellent tool, but it deliberately isolates certain aspects of the cosmos with a very particular method and for very particular reasons. As I put it here:

Philosophic knowledge does include natural philosophy. Natural philosophy, however, is a distinct thing from science in the modern sense, which is concerned not with philosophic certitude, but rather only with practical certitude, and regards its objects exclusively under the aspects of what the Christian readers of Aristotle (which included most of the old Reformed) call material and efficient cause, and represents those mathematically, for purposes of prediction and manipulation. Modern science is inherently uncertain, but it is supposed to be, since its aim is primarily practical, and the “vision” aspect of it, theory, subject to constant revision in the service of the practical aim.

Scientism is the attempt to illegitimately elevate natural science’s legitimate narrowing of the world into a metaphysic- it usurps the place of philosophy from the start. But philosophy is the higher science. A real philosopher is a scientist, as it were, of the whole, that very whole which scientism denies existence. Scientism denies the cosmos’ existence through the unjustified move of a priori negating some of its aspects, namely, the formal, spiritual, and mental ones. It is therefore nothing but a dodge when proponents of scientism attempt to exclude a philosopher from public discussion about the world by making out that he is a layman in any particular field of natural scientific inquiry, because they are, of course, begging the question about what the world is, and begging the question about what science is. Thus, not only is mind banished as an element of the cosmos, but the perspective of mind at at its apex – namely, philosophy – is violently banished from public reason and public discourse, through some very irrational means indeed.

The secularist inquisitors are being unwittingly abetted in this ejection of philosophy by the fideism fashionable amongst certain soi-disant conservative theologians, who apparently agree that knowing we have a mind, or knowing the cosmos as formal order, is in fact naturally impossible, for only special revelation could possibly tell us so. While they are waiting to figure out how special revelation tells them to tie their shoes, however, we should be firmly insisting, with Dr Nagel, on the perennial primacy of philosophy in natural knowledge.

By Peter Escalante

Peter Escalante is a founder and editor of The Calvinist International. He holds a MA in Philosophy.