|tags:||Science & Technology|
“WHAT'S PAST IS PROLOGUE,” a line dear to our American identification with endless progress, is — like so much apparent proverbial wisdom — actually a quote from William Shakespeare. Antonio speaks it to Sebastian early in Act II of The Tempest, when the context happens to be criminal. In American usage, the context is more often Whiggishly historical. Thomas Nagel’s new book is an essay in the philosophy of science, but Whig historiography bears rather heavily upon it.
Whig historiography is so named for the British political movement that, between the late 17th and the mid-19th century, successfully established the superiority of parliament over the monarchy. The Whigs saw all of the British past as a prologue to this great achievement. In its high imperial variant, Whig historiography saw the British Empire as glorious confirmation of the ever more evident truth that history had come to a providential culmination in London.
Meanwhile, Whiggery’s American variant took the entire European past as prologue to the Great American Experiment. President Woodrow Wilson may have been the prophet who first brought the American revelation to a world audience, but that revelation seemed most nearly to come to fulfillment in the half-century after World War II. By the 1990s, Americans complacently accepted their country’s division of the entire planet into a set of six interlocking military commands as Englishmen had accepted the sun’s never setting on the British Empire. Yes, CENTCOM, AFRICOM, PACOM, and the others did serve American national defense and national prosperity, but the world was also, on balance, much the better for them being there. History had led the world beyond London to the “Washington Consensus,” and the worldly-wise would run to meet this culmination.
Britain’s Whiggish self-confidence collapsed in the wake of World War I. A century later, the comparable American self-confidence is collapsing as we speak, for reasons that scarcely need to be rehearsed here. Yet there is one arena of modern life in which a Whiggish faith that the present is a grand and final culmination of the past lives on, and that area is science. The Whiggish history of science understands not just all past study of nature, but all of human thought to have come, in modern science, to a culmination whose future entails no replacement, only modifications within the existing rules of operation. That this must be so is an implicit moral commitment that, in the writings of some scientists, becomes quite explicit. But the terminal validity of science cannot be a scientific conclusion, since — although science makes many valid predictions — no science exists that has the ability to predict the future of science.
Nagel’s subject in Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False is the human mind, taken to be so important a part of nature that no science unable to fully explain it can claim to have a methodology able, in the very long run, to understand nature. He makes clear in two opening chapters that he takes nature — the “Cosmos” of his title — to be a singular thing, and that he does not wish to suppose mind as in any way a supernatural or extranatural reality located somehow above or outside it. He then turns his attention in successive chapters to (quoting their titles) “Consciousness,” “Cognition,” and “Value...read more