Thomas Nagel’s Several Realisms

1. As I said in my immediately previous post, one of the lines of pursuit of the aims of After Aristotle is that of “engaging myself in the major issues animating the contemporary philosophical conversation.” One such issue is that raised by the (often so-called) mind-body problem. Recently this issue has attracted a lot of attention beyond the confines of academic philosophy, interest in it sparked by the appearance of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos. Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). It is my intention to devote a series of posts to Mind and Cosmos, for I have the temerity to think that the neo-Aristotelian perspective to which I find myself adhering might be able to add some light to the considerable heat which the book’s appearance has generated.

2. Thinking it best to use the dictum “first things first” as my guide in approaching Mind and Cosmos, I’ll begin my study of Nagel’s work by taking note in this post of the fact that, in some fundamental though by no means all ways, Nagel’s philosophical perspective could well be described as a neo-Aristotelian philosophical perspective. For one thing, as the following paragraph makes clear, it is based in a variety of philosophical realisms (p. 72):

Thought and reasoning are correct or incorrect in virtue of something independent of the thinker’s beliefs, and even independent of the community of thinkers to which he belongs. We take ourselves to have the capacity to form true beliefs about the world around us, about the timeless domains of logic and mathematics, and about the right thing to do.

It is not just that we can form true beliefs. Rather, for Nagel, we are in fact capable of attaining knowledge, even if not infallibly. He continues (Ibid.):

We don’t take these capacities to be infallible, but we think that they are often reliable, in an objective sense, and that they can give us knowledge. The natural internal stance of human life assumes that there is a real world, that many question, both factual and practical, have correct answers, and that there are norms of thought which, if we follow them, will tend to lead us toward the correct answers to those questions. It assumes that to follow those norms is to respond correctly to values or reasons that we apprehend.

Nagel then closes the paragraph (Ibid.):

Mathematics, science, and ethics are built on such norms.

3. Let me offer the following correlations between what Nagel has said in the above and what I advanced, in my post of March 7, 2013, “Introduction,” as basic principles of a neo-Aristotelian perspective. First, the

[T]here is a real world.

of Nagel’s pronouncement that:

The natural internal stance of human life assumes that there is a real world,

corresponds tolerably well to my statement of what I called the “General Principle of Realism”:

There exists a genuine multiplicity of beings subject to change and varying in magnitude and nature.

for I take it that his real world is composed of the “genuine multiplicity of beings subject to change and varying in magnitude and nature” of which my principle speaks.

His statement concerning our capacities to “form true beliefs about the world around us, about the timeless domains of logic and mathematics, and about the right thing to do,” that:

[T]hey can give us knowledge.

corresponds tolerably well to:

There exists a genuine knowledge of the real.

This is a more moderate rendition, in having the “, indeed a science,” excised from it, of what I called the “Thesis of Epistemism”:

There exists a genuine knowledge, indeed a science, of the real.

The moderate thesis stands, of course, in opposition to the thesis of global skepticism:

There does not exist a genuine knowledge of the real.

4. The statement, “Thought and reasoning are correct or incorrect in virtue of something independent of the thinker’s beliefs, and even independent of the community of thinkers to which he belongs,” lets us understand that Nagel’s epistemology is one of epistemological realism, the thesis that, as I word it:

The genuine knowledge which we have of the real is causally posterior to the real of which we have the knowledge; knowledge is not creative of the real.

It stands in opposition to the thesis of idealism, the thesis, as I word it, that:

The real of which we have a genuine knowledge is causally posterior to that knowledge; knowledge is creative of the real.

It also, let us note if only for the sake of completeness, stands in opposition to two theses for which I myself have no names ready to hand, the one that:

The real of which we have a genuine knowledge is neither posterior to nor prior to that knowledge; knowledge and the real stand in no non-accidental relation.

and the other that:

The real of which we have a genuine knowledge is both posterior to and prior to that knowledge.

5. Some commentators seem to have been particularly struck by Nagel’s belief in the objectivity of moral truth, as expressed in the statement, “Mathematics, science, and ethics are built on such norms,” quoted above, and in the statement (Ibid., p. 28):

I agree with Sharon Street that an evolutionary self-understanding would almost certainly require us to give up moral realism—the natural conviction that our moral judgments are true or false independent of our beliefs.*

In “Do You Only Have a Brain. On Thomas Nagel,”** their review of Mind and Cosmos, Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg tell us:

We take no stance on Nagel’s hypothesis that if our moral faculties are simply the result of evolution, they cannot be reliable measures of objective moral truth. But we should note that Nagel’s colleague, philosopher Sharon Street, accepts it and draws the opposite conclusion. She argues that because this hypothesis is true, and because we are obviously the products of evolution, we should give up the idea that there are objective moral truths in Nagel’s sense. Given the philosophical plausibility of Street’s alternative response—not to mention the simplistic evolutionary reasoning the whole debate is predicated on—it is hard to see why any biologist should be given pause by Nagel’s argument.

I think we can take the conditional, “if our moral faculties are simply the result of evolution, they cannot be reliable measures of objective moral truth,” as a sufficiently accurate representation of the thesis in the holding of which Nagel agrees with Street. I don’t believe, however, that Nagel was oblivious of the fact that he and Street differed in the conclusions which they drew from the two elementary arguments in which that conditional served as a premise. Street’s argument, as presented by Leiter and Weisberg, is but an instance of modus ponendo ponens, to wit:

If our moral faculties are simply the result of evolution, they cannot be reliable measures of objective moral truth.

Our moral faculties are simply the result of evolution.

Therefore, they cannot be reliable measures of objective moral truth.

Nagel’s argument, all but explicit in the context, is but an instance of modus tollendo tollens, again to wit:

If our moral faculties are simply the result of evolution, they cannot be reliable measures of objective moral truth.

It is not the case that they cannot be reliable measures of objective moral truth.

Therefore, our moral faculties are not simply the result of evolution.

The principle of double negation is, of course, at work in the inference yielding the second premise:

[T]hey [i.e., our moral faculties] can be reliable measures of objective moral truth.

Therefore, it is not the case that they cannot be reliable measures of objective moral truth.

along with an inference from the actual to the possible:

[T]hey [i.e., our moral faculties] are reliable measures of objective moral truth.

Therefore, they can be reliable measures of objective moral truth.

6. Allow me to subject you to some additional reflections, reflections taking as their point of departure “the natural conviction that our moral judgments are true or false independent of our beliefs.” There are two sets of two theses presented here in a compressed format. One set relates to the value of goodness and the other to the value badness. On the one hand, it seems to me that Nagel is committed to what I might call the “General Principle of Realism in the Theory of the Good,’ i.e., to the thesis that, in my wording:

There exists a genuine multiplicity of good things subject to change and varying in the degree and nature of their goodness.

He seems equally committed to the two epistemological theses, one that of epistemism in the theory of the knowledge of the good, according to which:

There exists a genuine knowledge of the good.

This thesis stands opposed to that of skepticism in the theory of the knowledge of the good, according to which:

There does not exist a genuine knowledge of the good.

The other epistemological thesis to which it seems that Nagel is committed is that of realism in the theory of the knowledge of the good, according to which:

The genuine knowledge which we have of the good is causally posterior to the good of which we have the knowledge; knowledge is not creative of the good.

I’ll leave it up to readers who wish to do so to state for themselves the three theses opposed to this last. Similarly, I’ll leave it up to readers who wish to do so to state for themselves the several analogous theses bearing on the bad and our knowledge of it. But I’ll not resist the temptation to recall Hamlet’s expression of a couple of such theses (Act 2 Scene 2):

[T]here is nothing either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.

Of course, Hamlet’s pronouncement was advanced as that of a madman, while those of Nagel are not, at least if we are to believe the claim put forward by Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson, in his “Thomas Nagel Is Not Crazy.”***

7. Drifting off into speculation and quite likely going beyond anything which Nagel would like to say, I want to observe that we do not simply know the good and the bad, we often love or like the one and hate or dislike the other. We have thus the thesis of realism in the theory of the love (or liking) of the good:

There exists a genuine love (or liking) of the good.

and the analogous thesis in the theory of the hatred or disliking of the bad:

There exists a genuine hatred (or disliking) of the bad.

Etc.

I hope in the future to be able to intelligently articulate some things in the above that badly need intelligent articulation, such as an understanding of what the good and the bad are and what the relationships obtaining between the knowledge and the love of the good might be and what those obtaining between the knowledge and the hatred of the bad might be.

* Nagel refers us in a footnote to: Sharon Street, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” Philosophical Studies 127, no, 1 (January 2006): 109-66.

** Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg, “Do You Only Have a Brain. On Thomas Nagel,” The Nation, October 22, 2012. http://www.thenation.com/article/170334/do-you-only-have-brain-thomas-nagel#.  Accessed March 13, 2013.

*** Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson, “Thomas Nagel Is Not Crazy” Prospect Magazine, October 23, 2012. http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/blog/philosophy/thomas-nagel-mind-and-cosmos-review-leiter-nation/. Accessed March 15, 2013.

March 22, 2013, Correction: Late for an appointment, I rushed to get the above post published. In so doing, I managed to find a way to publish its penultimate version; it appears that I failed to save the ultimate version. It is, however, easily reconstructed.

a. Rather than saying, as penultimate version does above in Section 5, that:

I don’t believe, however, that Nagel was oblivious of the fact that he and Street differed in the conclusions which they drew from the two elementary arguments in which that conditional served as a premise. Street’s argument, as presented by Leiter and Weisberg, is but an instance of modus ponendo ponens, to wit:

the ultimate version said more directly that:

Nagel was hardly oblivious of the fact that he and Street differed in the conclusions which they drew from the two elementary arguments in which that conditional served as a premise. First, nearly all philosophers would have seen that Street’s argument, as presented by Leiter and Weisberg, is but an instance of modus ponendo ponens, to wit:

That which is said in the remainder of the penultimate version’s Section 5 is nearly if not exactly the same as that which is said in the ultimate version. The ultimate version continued, however, adding that:

Moreover, Nagel made all this as clear as one could without making express mention of modus ponendo ponens, modus tollendo tollens, and the principle of double negation.

and then quoted him as he said (Mind and Cosmos, p. 105) that:

In essence, I agree with Sharon Street’s position that moral realism is incompatible with a Darwinian account of the evolutionary influence on our faculties of moral and evaluative judgment. Street holds that a Darwinian account is strongly supported by contemporary science, so she concludes that moral realism is false. I follow the same inference in the opposite direction: since moral realism is true, a Darwinian account of the motives underlying moral judgments must be false, in spite of the scientific consensus in it favor.

b. Section 6 of the penultimate version also differs from that of the ultimate version, in noting  that there is a difference between the good and the bad which Nagel recognizes and the good and the bad which an Aristotelian perspective and my neo-Aristotelian perspective should  recognize. I think, however, that I will spell that difference out in a separate post rather than as a correction to the present post.

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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