A Brief Note on Wolff on Nagel

Familial and other obligations and celebrations have recently been making it impossible for me to really focus, over the past couple of weeks, on the current focus of After Aristotle. I have had time only for some brief sessions with Badiou’s Being and Event and some casual perusals of some of the blogs I enjoy reading. One such blog is Robert Paul Wolff’s The Philosopher’s Stone, at http://robertpaulwolff.blogspot.com/.

In his post of September 1, 2013, “WHAT HAVE I BEEN READING,” Wolff reports:

I have just finished reading Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, by my old friend and one-time student, Thomas Nagel.  I am sorry to say that I did not find it an illuminating or persuasive book, for a variety of reasons.

After some related ruminations, Wolff offers the following commentary:

It just seems to me that before Tom Nagel announces that the Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false, it behooves him to spend a good deal of time immersed in the substance of that conception.  Tom makes a good deal of the fact of consciousness [to which he devotes one of his five chapters,] claiming, as you might expect, that consciousness is utterly different in kind from the neurological condition of non-conscious life forms.  But he does not talk at all about all the work that has been done tracing, step by step, the neurological development of species that appear to be located somewhere along the continuum between consciousness and non-consciousness.  Perhaps had he done so, he would have concluded that his initial instinct was correct.  But he does not do the work.  And failing to do that work, he is, I think, dismissing and failing to pay attention to all the extraordinary research that is now being done.

There is much here that is worthy of comment, but the one thing I think myself ready to focus on here and now is the presupposition, evident in the third sentence, that there are species “that appear to be located somewhere along the continuum between consciousness and non-consciousness.”

There is, however, no “continuum between consciousness and non-consciousness.” Indeed there is there is nothing at all “between consciousness and non-consciousness” or, moving to the concrete, between the conscious and non-conscious. This is the case, at least, if it is true that, as the classical “first principle” of the excluded middle has it (using the exclusive sense of either … or …):

All beings must either be or not be, in any one respect and at any one time.

or, in a mode of expression perhaps more familiar to the adepts of “mathematical” or “symbolic” logic:

For any existent x and any property P, either x has P or x does not have P.

And so:

All beings must either be conscious or not be conscious, in any one respect and at any one time.


For any existent x and the property of consciousness, either x has consciousness or x does not have consciousness.

Thus too for life and non-life, sentience and non-sentience, and intelligence and non-intelligence. These distinctions undoubtedly have their implications for a theory of evolution. As its very title makes clear, however, this post is a brief one and so I’ll leave those implications for another time.

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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2 Responses to A Brief Note on Wolff on Nagel

  1. Jim S. says:

    Yeah, but you know why Wolff made this objection: it’s pure evolutionary thinking. There had to be intermediate steps between non-consciousness and consciousness, just as there had to be intermediate steps between proto-minds and minds. Dennett focuses on this pretty extensively.

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