Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Consciousness, Art, and the Awakening Cosmos

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Richard Brody reviews the philosopher Thomas Nagel's new book, "Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False." Brody writes that "Nagel offers mental activity as a special realm of being and life as a special condition--in the same way that biology is a special realm of science, distinct from physics."
"Since neither physics nor Darwinian biology--the concept of evolution--can account for the emergence of a mental world from a physical one, Nagel contends that the mental side of existence must somehow have been present in creation from the very start. [...] He suggests that any theory of the universe, any comprehensive mesh of physics and biology, will need to succeed in 'showing how the natural order is disposed to generate beings capable of comprehending it.'
"And this, he argues, would be a theory of teleology--a preprogrammed or built-in tendency in the universe toward the particular goal of fulfilling the possibilities of mentality.  In a splendid image, Nagel writes, 'Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself." 

Brody asserts that "the book's widest implications involve art and how it helps us to understand the world." He brings up a parallel with his own view regarding "realistic" movies, "that the realities that matter in movies are mental constructs, whether emotional or political, and that, therefore, a movie that rigorously represents solely the physical aspects and actions of its characters doesn't necessarily come any closer to anything like reality, and may even get further from it."

"If Nagel is right, art itself would no longer be merely the scientist's leisure-time fulfillment but would be (I think correctly) recognized as a primary mode of coming to grips with the mental and moral essence of the universe.  It would be a key source of the very definition of life."

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