Meeting 1.2: Naturalism, Mind, and Value

The science and religion reading group at MIT met for the second time on 25 September 2013.



Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos (Oxford, Oxford, UK: 2012). Chapters 4-5.

(Rec: Papineau, David. “Naturalism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Spring 2009, 2009.


Summary: Roger White presented his summary of Nagel’s Arguments


Common Theme:  There are facts requiring explanation that a standard Darwinian account of our origins cannot provide.  Hens the Darwinian story must be augmented, perhaps with natural teleology.


Why do our evaluative and other cognitive capacities require explanation?

–       To leave them unexplained is just unsatisfying and hence an implausible picture of the world and our place in it.

–       To leave them unexplained leads to skepticism regarding science and value.


Cognition:  We have the capacity to transcend subjectivity and discover what is objectively the case.

–       This assumes a mind-independent realm of facts.

–       This is open to question with regard to value, but to question scientific realism on the basis of a scientific theory borders on incoherence.


Two Explanatory Tasks:


Historical: Can we adequately account for the emergence of cognition with in a Darwinian framework?

–       An adequate explanation cannot have the emergence of cognition be a highly improbable accident.

–       The exercise of higher cognitive capacities conferred no selective advantage on our ancestors.  But a just-so story might be told in which such capacities are a by-product of cognitive improvements such as language acquisition.

–       We can take a critical stance toward our innate cognitive dispositions, but in doing so we must rely on our reasoning capacities in a way that is independent of our theory of their origins.

–       Natural teleology may hold the answer.  If laws are nondeterministic, some states may be rendered more probable by virtue of their conduciveness to future states of greater value.



Constitutive: What does cognition consist in for physical creatures like us?  What do we have to add to the biological story besides consciousness to make sense of cognition?

–       The comparison of the mind to a computer is inadequate, as it cannot account for understanding.

–       A reductive account in terms of the properties of an organism’s constituent parts is inadequate, as rationality seems necessarily a feature of the functioning of the whole conscious subject.

–       A holistic or emergent account seems most plausible.


Value: There are moral and evaluative truths that hold independently of our motivational dispositions.  We are capable of knowing such truths and being motivated by them.

–       Evolutionary pressures do not select for sensitivity to objective evaluative truth.

–       So it is very unlikely that random mutation and natural selection alone will result in creatures with an accurate grasp of evaluative truth.

–       So, if we think that Darwinism is the whole story of our origins we must reject moral realism.




Our discussion ranged over a number of topics, but included:

What constitutes a good explanation? 

Nagel makes a number of appeals to plausibility and we were curious what constitutes a compelling argument for Nagel and for us.  Nagel wants explanations that make life, cognition, and values not only possible but, in some sense likely.

Does science require the level of objectivism Nagel is reaching for?

Do ethics require the level of objectivism Nagel is reaching for?

Are there compelling evolutionary explanations for the development of cognition?

While this is far too large a question to address in an hour, Lucas Mix presented three claims.

–       Evolutionary biology, being methodologically naturalist looks for the most compelling among naturalistic explanations and cannot – constitutionally – do more than choose from among the best of the explanations available.

–       “Cognition” may be poorly defined, but explanations for why so much metabolic energy is devoted to brain processes in humans – and presumably how so much abstract reasoning occurs – appeal to:

  • Sexual Selection – mate choice favors extravagant display traits such as the peacock’s tail.
  • Social Pressures – navigating complex relationships within the species may require the ability to think abstractly about relationships between hundreds of individuals.
  • Signal Detection – cooperate within social groups requires the ability to communicate, but also suggests the origin and development of complex lying and lie detection mechanisms in order to maximize success within the social context.
  • By-Product – abstract cognition may be the by-product of some form of concrete reasoning necessary for survival.  For example foraging may call for spatial awareness.
  • Niche Filling – highly complex and diversified ecosystems, including Earth, may provide opportunities for species to fill independently improbably niches.  The percentage of cognizant individuals is a tiny fraction of the total number and may just result from life exploring a vast number of strategies.

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