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Posted November 3, 2012
Nagel’s fundamental premise is that the evolution of the universe, galaxy, sun, life, and society all imply a direction, a teleology, a point of order into which the universe is collapsing. Like de Chardin’s omega point, people like Nagel have often posited a singular destiny that then determines all order in the universe. An evolving order of the cosmos in time parallels the evolution of life’s molecular organization. An evolving order of consciousness parallels the evolution of reason along with commerce and government.
Reason, according to Nagel, differentiates human consciousness from that of other sentients and yet that differentiation, reason, is at the root of the science-philosophy debate.
Nagel describes reason with this example:
If I decide, when the sun rises on my right, that I must be driving north instead of south, it is because I recognize that my belief that I am driving south is inconsistent with that observation, together with what I know about the direction of rotation of the earth. I abandon the belief because I recognize that it couldn’t be true.
This reasoning, Nagel claims, is different from a simple sensation, for example, seeing a tree.
When I see a tree, I see it because it is there, but not just because it is there.
If you are having a hard time seeing the difference between seeing a sunset and a tree, you are not alone. How about just because you write a sentence does not then give the sentence useful meaning. How about:
If I believe what I see is a tree, and then further observe that the tree is made of colored mortar and plastic leaves, I abandon my belief because I recognize that it could not be true.
Which of these statements represents simple perception and which reason? Fundamentally, Nagel’s reason is simply a more complex conscious feeling. Imagination and feeling are nice words that describe conscious reasoning.
For Nagel's driving south example, we imagine a destination when driving south based on many sensations like signs and verbal directions and we choose actions for that journey. Then, the sensation of a sunrise to our right poses a conflict with our first imaginings.
With the sunset to our right, we then imagine that we actually journey north, not south, despite other sensations to the contrary. If we feel that the direction of the sunrise is a more reliable sensation that the other sensations that led to our original belief, we change our belief.
This example does not seem like a very convincing demonstration of higher reasoning. After all, birds reason with similar sensations for their migratory flights. Is this the same reasoning that differentiates human consciousness?
Nagel tries to differentiate human abstract thought as reason from the simpler thinking of sentient consciousness. Neither his words nor the examples seem to differentiate human reason from other sentient consciousness except in complexity.
Still I thought his arguments were engaging and his exposition was illuminating although with some flaws. This is what I desire when I read about the mind and cosmos.
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