Meeting 1.1: Naturalism and Life

The science and religion reading group at MIT met for the first time on 11 September 2013.


Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos (Oxford, Oxford, UK: 2012). Introduction, chapters 1-3.

(Rec: Kitcher, Philip. “Things Fall Apart.” Opinionator. Accessed September 17, 2013.

(Rec: Leiter, Brian. “Do You Only Have a Brain? On Thomas Nagel.” The Nation, October 3, 2012.


Summary: Lucas Mix presented his summary of Nagel’s Arguments

The prevailing form of naturalism, notably materialist reductionism is untenable because it fails to sufficiently explain the origin of life and consciousness.   This rests on three arguments:

Intuitive: We know that experience is more than physical states, that values are objectively real (and possibly that action is possible).  Physicalism necessarily denies these things.  Therefore physicalism is false.

Metaphysical: Perception and intelligibility require some relation between the universe and the observer which is not available in evolutionary naturalism.  [Fiat and dualism are insufficient explanations of life and consciousness because they fail to actually explain the phenomena.  Theism is unappealing. ]

Empirical:  Behaviorism fails because it rejects interior states (see intuitive).  Psychophysical identity theory fails because it identifies rather than explaining the relationship between mind and physiology.

Neo-Darwinian physical reductionism fails because it doesn’t provide rules that anticipate life and consciousness on the basis of pre-life natural laws.  Evolutionary byproduct and contingency arguments are uncompelling.  The proposed chain of events is sufficiently improbable to make us believe it could not have occurred.

Therefore, we must embrace an ontology which is not strictly physicalist.

Further, since consciousness is a product of biology, a philosophy which cannot explain consciousness cannot provide satisfactory biological explanations.  Therefore, we must embrace an epistemology which is not strictly physicalist as well.

[LM: I found Nagel’s Intuitive and Empirical arguments uncompelling.  The Metaphysical argument was interesting, but seemed less clear than Shrodinger’s in “Mind and Matter.” See Metting 1.3.]



Our discussion focused on the meaning of naturalism, how it related to physicalism, and whether it was appropriate in science and philosophy.  We were all slightly confused about the exact nature of Nagel’s arguments.



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